It was a leap into the unknown, but Hibs’ entry into the East of Scotland League has proved to be a winner all round, with the Easter Road side having clinched promotion to the Central Taxis Premier Division with games to spare.
A final-day showdown with rivals Easthouses Lily, currently just one point behind, next month could present the Capital youngsters with the chance to take the First Division title.
But as delighted as he would be to end the season on a high, defender Neil Martyniuk today claimed the campaign had offered a team packed with teenagers invaluable experience which the club hope will help fast track their careers.
Admitting the experience had been something of an eye-opener, the 17-year-old said: “It’s been terrific for us. Playing the East of Scotland League puts you on a different learning curve to playing Under-20s football. It’s more physical, you are up against men rather than boys your own age and you have to adapt.
“It was something of a step into the unknown for us, but I don’t think there were any reservations on our part. It’s benefited us all. We’ve had to get used to the more physical side of the game which we are going to encounter if we’re lucky enough to go on to have careers in the first team. We’ve got a very young side, a couple aged 19 but mostly 17 and 18-year-olds with a few just 16. It’s totally different coming up against guys who, for some of our younger boys, are almost twice their age and who know how to handle themselves. I think we’ve all had to take a few whacks, but you just have to deal with it and get on with the game. Personally speaking, it’s a side of the game I enjoy.”
Representing a Scottish Premiership club in a lower league has not only exposed the Hibs kids to the rough and tumble but also mind games, with Musselburgh-born Martyniuk revealing opposition players and fans alike haven’t been slow to remind them they’re the league’s “big time Charlies”.
He said: “We’ve had a bit of that, the sort of stuff you don’t get in Under-20s football. You learn just to ignore what’s being said – they’re just trying to get into your head and put you off. The crowds we get aren’t the biggest so you tend to hear every comment and some of them can be quite cutting, especially away from home.
“They try to wind you up, but, again, it’s another side of learning to be a professional football player.”
Adapting their game to suit conditions has also been of prime importance, Martyniuk pointing out that Hibs’ more impressive scorelines have tended to come at their East Mains home where the pitch is bigger and their superior fitness against part-time opponents is able to shine through.
Martyniuk said: “Playing for the Under-20s, we play our games at Livingston and when you go away it can be to places like St Mirren Park, McDiarmid Park and so on. But in the East of Scotland, dressing-rooms are smaller, some of the pitches are much tighter, the grass hasn’t been cut and it’s muddy.
“Teams sit in, try to keep it tight and it’s up to us to try to break them down. We have to go a bit more direct and squeeze the game from there. But, again, it’s a case of adapting and learning. It’s a different side of the game we are seeing with most of us having come straight from school into somewhere like East Mains.”
While the East of Scotland team has, in the main, been populated by aspiring youngsters, Martyniuk and his team-mates have twice found Scotland midfielder Kevin Thomson turning out alongside them. Martyniuk, who is in his fourth year with Hibs having been spotted playing for Tynecastle Boys’ Club, said: “If it was a bit of surprise to us the first time, just imagine the shock it was to the players of Hawick Royal Albert who probably came out that day expecting a bunch of kids, only to find Kevin there.
“It was brilliant for us to have someone like Kevin play in our team. He’s had a great career, he’s played for Scotland, been down south and just to see his calmness and composure on the ball and his experience off it was terrific for us. And then, two days later, he was called into the Scotland squad, which just shows you what can happen in football.”
Thomson’s involvement as he served a Premiership ban highlighted an additional benefit of fielding a team in the EOS in addition to the Under-20 side, with former boss Pat Fenlon and now Terry Butcher able to use their games to give first team players an outing as they come back from injury, suspension or having simply been out of favour. The main purpose of the venture is to speed up the development of young players such as Martyniuk and after the likes of Sam Stanton, Jordon Forster, Danny Handling and Alex Harris made the breakthrough to the first team, 18-year-old Jason Cummings, pictured left, has been catapulted from the Under-20 ranks and into Butcher’s plans in the space of a few months.
The striker, who only joined Hibs on August 1, has scored goals for fun in both the EOS and Under-20s and is the club’s top scorer in both competitiions. Martyniuk said: “We’ve shared the goals around a lot, which has helped us win games, but Jason has shown what can happen. He only joined the club at the start of the season, did very well, scored a lot of goals and has now started a few first-team games. It just shows what can happen if you get your head down and take your chance when it comes.”
While adamant playing in the EOS can help him and his team-mates pursue their dream, Martyniuk admitted he’s got his eyes on a more immediate prize, the East of Scotland First Division trophy.
He said: “The EOS has been great for our development, but we don’t just want to be playing football games, we want to be winning at the same time. Promotion is great, but we want to take the title. We’re one point ahead of Easthouses Lily with the same number of games played. We’ve got two tough away games, against Eyemouth this weekend and Hawick the week after before we play Easthouses at East Mains.”