ROSS CALDWELL punched the air in delight. James McDonaugh simply enjoyed a quiet smile of satisfaction.
The celebrations may have differed considerably, but their shared contentment came from the same thing: the 18-year-old Hibs striker’s debut.
It may only have lasted five minutes, Caldwell’s late introduction a small taste of SPL action rather than any hope he could somehow salvage a point for Pat Fenlon’s side, trailing as they were by two goals to Rangers.
To player and coach alike it meant everything. Caldwell had realised his dream of making the first team at Easter Road, for McDonaugh, pictured below, watching another kid make the step up outweighed all the cups and medals you could ever wish for.
Now, of course, the target for Caldwell is to force his way into Fenlon’s plans on a regular basis, while McDonaugh can reflect on the fact that the Hamilton-born player was the seventh of his young charges to have enjoyed, to a greater or lesser degree, first team football over the course of 2011.
Caldwell’s name was added to an already impressive list – Scott Taggart, Lewis Horner, Danny Handling, David Crawford, Scott Smith and Dean Horribine – in taking that first step.
How many will go on to “make it” in the same way the likes of Garry O’Connor, Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Steven Whittaker, Steven Fletcher, Derek Riordan and, more recently, Paul Hanlon, David Wotherspoon and Callum Booth have done remains to be seen. But in itself the fact so many are pushing for the chance to pull on a green and white shirt on a regular basis is proof for those who perhaps doubted that Hibs renowned youth system continues to flourish.
Certainly, there’s a long way from the odd few minutes here and there to clocking up 100 first team matches, as Hanlon did the other weekend, but, insisted Hibs head of academy coaching McDonaugh, working towards that achievement has to be the aim for the kids over the course of this coming year.
He said: “I was there to see Ross play, sitting in the stand alongside his mum. It was brilliant for him. The thrill he got was obvious as he came off punching the air.
“Ultimately that’s what it is all about. You would swap everything for that chance. Some people may say he has made it because he has played for Hibs. He hasn’t, but he has taken a step towards making it.
“Making it to me means you’ve played 100 or 200 first team games. I was lucky enough to work with Paul before he made his debut and that’s the difference. He’s now established himself as a first team regular, not just for five minutes.
“However, Ross is hungry enough and hopefully in time we’ll be talking about him having played 100 games as well.”
McDonaugh’s hope, of course, encompasses all the youngsters under his wing, aware of the responsibility resting on his shoulders and those of his fellow coaches particularly at a time when clubs, faced with financial hardship, become more reliant on their youth systems.
Hibs have always placed great emphasis on home-grown talent, a policy which stretches back into the mists of time, but when, as now, the first team is enduring a difficult spell, supporters tend to pay more attention to the up-and-coming generation, looking for the next big star.
McDonaugh, though, believes patience will bear fruit. He said: “What I have done since I came in is to make sure the boys are working hard, there’s a work ethic, a programme here in place that is as strong as you are going to get which, I think, prepares them for the step up.
“The current group we have had for a long time, they want to work hard, they love working hard and having their game on a Saturday.
“Yes, there’s the pressure to bring the next one through, but if you have a philosophy on how you want the game played and how you want to work through the week I am sure you will get the players through.”
The lack of a reserve league has hampered many clubs in that regard, Hibs having farmed Smith, Horner, Crawford, Taggart and Calum Antell out on loan to gain regular first team experience in the lower divisions, but McDonaugh has been encouraged by seeing so many make their first tentative steps in the green and white of their “parent club”.
He said: “We’ve seen glimpses of Handling – who is only 17 remember – Horner, Smith, Crawford, Taggart, Caldwell and Horribine which has made it a good calendar year for the youth players.
“I don’t think we have had so many getting such exposure since the days of O’Connor, Riordan and so on.”
As expansive as that list may be, McDonaugh believes there are many others just out of sight of the fans for the time being who are just as capable of forcing their way through, each of them greatly encouraged by seeing the progress made by their peers. Name after name trips off his tongue: Sam Stanton who has just missed out on a place on the bench in recent weeks; goalkeeper Paul Grant, taken to Aberdeen with the first team; Jordon Forster who has been a substitute; Marc Lancaster “a great attacking full-back”; Harry Monaghan “a willing workhorse in the middle of the park”; David Gold; Alex Harris, and so on.
McDonaugh said: “They are a tight bunch of boys. They want each other to do well, but they have that hunger, that bit of envy when they see another of them get a chance.
“Don’t get me wrong, they were delighted to see Ross play against Rangers, but each of them has that feeling that if he can do it then so can they.”
A balance, however, has to be struck between burdening youngsters with too much expectation and encouraging their progress. McDonaugh said: “People talk about the right time to put kids in but I genuinely believe if they are playing well then, whether the team is at the top of the league or towards the bottom, a young player can give the whole club a lift.
“To put them in and demand they play until the end of the season would be wrong, but putting them in and taking them out again at the right time is the way to do it.”
While new boss Fenlon has rightly devoted most of his time to the first team problems he inherited from predecessor Colin Calderwood, McDonaugh revealed the Irishman has already taken a keen interest in the youth players. He said: “He manager has been great. He has told them that if he thinks they are good enough he will play them. He’s got a lot on his plate with the first team, but he seems to have taken a real interest.
“He doesn’t know all the boys’ names yet, but he has been to see them play a couple of times.
“He came to the Spartans’ match and was in the dressing room afterwards telling them he was pleased with the way they had played, that he was delighted with what he had seen.”