It is August 30, 2020 at Easter Road Stadium and with 54 minutes on the clock, there is no surprise to see the No 23 on the electronic board to signal a substitution.
With Hibernian on their way to their first defeat of the season against Aberdeen after a promising start to the campaign, playmaker Scott Allan has struggled to make an impact and leaves the game early for the third time in as many starts.
The season is just six games old but Allan is fatigued, despite four months off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He knows something is wrong.
“I came back for pre-season and did the usual hard sessions and felt OK, but after about three or four weeks, I was starting to feel real fatigue. I was getting dizzy spells and feeling faint,” Allan tells Sky Sports News in an exclusive interview.
“I am a type one diabetic, so everybody assumes it is something to do with your diabetes [but] I knew something was underlying there.
“It wasn’t until we played Aberdeen and after 10 minutes, I felt physically drained. I remember getting subbed off and thinking, ‘I need to get to the bottom of this, I can’t continue to play like this’. It wasn’t benefitting the team because I wasn’t playing to my best and it definitely wasn’t benefitting me in terms of how I was feeling and how I could impact games.
“We did extensive checks. I went to my diabetic consultant just to make sure that all that side was OK, and it was. I went to Hampden (Medical Centre) to get the heart screening and they weren’t happy with the ECG (electrocardiogram).”
After being advised to stop training following his ECG results in Glasgow, Allan was expecting to attend a routine examination in London.
“I did MRI scans and a few other heart tests, but everything looked OK. It was not until we did the exercise test, which is testing the heart under stress which relates to me playing football. On the face of it, in a relaxed state, you wouldn’t know there is a problem but when we did the stress exercise test, that showed up cardiomyopathy.”
Cardiomyopathy is a disease that causes the walls of the heart to become too thick, restricting the blood flow around the body. It was a contributory factor in the deaths of Motherwell midfielder Phil O’Donnell in 2007 and Cameroon international Marc-Vivien Foe in 2003, both during matches. Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest at White Hart Lane in 2012 was due to the same condition.
Understandably, receiving such news came as a huge shock to Allan.
“You always think the worst, especially when it is something like a heart condition. It is a scary thing,” he says. “It was just surprising because you go to these things, you do those tests and you think everything is going to be fine – you’re a fit professional footballer – but that wasn’t the case that day.”
Allan faced the very real prospect of having to prematurely end a career that had taken in spells at clubs including Celtic, West Brom and Dundee United, as well as 10 caps for Scotland U21s.
“In terms of my football career, I was fearing the worst, to be honest,” he admitted. “Going on how I felt in the previous months in terms of the symptoms, I wasn’t happy with how that was affecting me in a game. I was really concerned.
“I went to see all the medical staff at Hibs and from there, we arranged a second opinion and third opinion via a Zoom call with a leading expert in New York.”
With his career at a standstill, Allan focused on caring for his five-year-old son Zac. But he was still a top-flight footballer and speculation was rife about why he had disappeared from the Hibernian squad.
Allan explains: “Zac kept asking, ‘why are you not playing today dad?’ He has Hibs TV on at his house, so I used the old ‘I am injured’ excuse. He loves football. That was an emotional time when he was asking ‘dad, are you not playing football anymore?’
“You were going to his football training and guys had read things, heard things and they can sometimes forget that you have a five-year-old next to you and are asking you, ‘what’s happening?’ and, ‘are you not playing football anymore?’
“When you get news that you have a heart condition and you have a young son, first and foremost the job’s to be a dad and be there and not put any danger towards him so that was a big decision. Football is a game I love and the only way I was going to carry on was if I didn’t have the symptoms and I wouldn’t have put myself at risk.”
Meanwhile, all Allan could do was wait. His career would be in the hands of the medical experts who had been asked to offer new opinions on his condition. If they backed the original examination, then it would be difficult to return to playing.
“I obviously checked and it is like anything that you type into Google – it’s not the answer you want to see,” admits Allan. “I had spoken to a few other people that had the same condition in professional sport and they were back playing and managing it, so that gave me a lot of motivation moving forward.
“I did not get the second opinion until the end of November. It was basically three months of doing nothing. It came back very positive and that’s when the previous cardiologist got in touch and the two of them came up with a plan to get me back on the training park.
“I did a six-week mini pre-season, stage-by-stage building myself up to see how I would feel week-by-week and whether the symptoms would come back the harder the training got.
“Fortunately, I have not had any symptoms since I have been back and personally felt the best I have felt in my playing career in terms of controlling my diabetes and finding out that I have had this my whole career.
“Now I know what I need to do so that I don’t have any symptoms. I am in a good place just now.”
In his absence, Hibernian had progressed to the semi-finals of the League Cup and, 25 games after his appearance against Aberdeen, it was in that match at Hampden Park that Allan returned to the squad.
Unfortunately, by the time Hibs called the midfielder from the bench, their last-four opponents St Johnstone had eased to a 3-0 lead. But for Allan, the day marked the end of a journey that took him to the brink, fearing for his career and his long-term health.
He said: “I felt quite emotional after the game. It was a disappointing result but I felt proud of myself.
“Being on a football pitch with my team-mates is something I will never take for granted again. These are the things that you love and it is hard to take that away from you.
“After the game, all of the boys had been through a disappointment but everyone came over to me and single-handedly said, ‘so good to see you back out there again’. That is probably why I was emotional that day.
“I feel a lot safer knowing what the condition is and knowing what I need to do to manage it and make sure I don’t get those sorts of symptoms. I am excited about moving forward now in terms of my football career than worrying about what could have been.”
Going public with a heart condition is not something a professional sportsperson takes lightly, but as well as explain his absence, Allan wants to highlight the issue and spread awareness among fellow footballers.
“I think the awareness is important to make sure every player is tested to the best possible quality from each club,” said Allan. “I would not have known this had I not gone to the cardiologist in London, so I think that is a massive thing to know if anything is underlying.
“One opinion might not just be the definitive answer and that has certainly been the case with me but it can be a serious condition. Some other player might not be as lucky but you can overcome these things and forge a career for yourself.”
Watch the full interview via Sky Sports On Demand or on Sky Sports’ YouTube channel.