From the scrapheap to stardom, the Jason Cummings story has become one of Scottish football’s fairytales.
Little more than a year ago the teenager was working as a gardener, playing simply for fun with his pals at Hutchison Vale Boys Club.
Today his is the name on everyone’s lips, having scored a glory double at Ibrox as Hibs shocked Rangers, confirming the Capital boy’s billing as one of the game’s hottest young properties.
But while Cummings – who has labelled himself “Mr Zing King” – may seem to have come from nowhere, it hasn’t surprised Tam Smith, club leader at Hutchie Vale for the past 25 years, who first saw the raw talent in action at the age of just six.
In the ensuing period Smith has witnessed the rise, fall and rise again of the striker, that early potential shattered by a serious knee injury, the return to his roots and, now, the coming good of a promise he made to him when he was at his lowest ebb.
Smith revealed: “Jason came to us when he was six, starting in our kids’ school. But even then you felt he was destined for big things, the way he made the game look ridiculously easy. His first goal against Rangers the other night was exactly what he used to do with us, the ability to read situations, to get in front of defenders and to take the ball coming down out of the sky as he did was incredible. Okay, the Rangers defender [Arnold Peralta] didn’t do as well as he should have, but you have to credit Jason for the way he took his goal.
“He was never the biggest, but his ball control was fantastic. Rarely did he stop the ball… he’d take it on the run and, with a wee jink here and there, get past opposition players with consummate ease, always finding his target with a pass or the back of the net.
“He was an outstanding talent and without doubt he’d be in my best team of all the players we’ve had in my 25 years with the kids school.”
A team-mate of Cummings was Sam Nicholson, the pair nurtured by a host of coaches through their years with Hutchie, before joining Hearts at the same time, only for Cummings to suffer a serious knee injury which required surgery and led to the 15-year-old dropping out of the game for a while.
He may have been lost forever had Smith not spotted him at Saughton with one of his best friends, Connor McGregor, who was still playing for Hutchie.
He said: “I called Jason over and said to him why not play a few games for our Under 17s just for the fun of it. He was a bit disillusioned with football at a higher level, but I told him he’d still got it and that we could get him a club.
“To be fair, Jason worked hard. He was in the gym, he did all the right things and then in the Under-19s he had a season when he just couldn’t stop scoring. I lost count of how many, but it was defnitely around the 70 mark, even although he was a very unselfish player… if he spotted a team-mate in a better position he’d always pass.
“But he always had that quality of being able to very quickly see the picture in his head before he even received the ball and then being able to drift by players to score some fantastic goals.”
Smith used his contacts to persuade Huddersfield Town to give Cummings a trial, the youngster impressing sufficiently to be asked back down. “He’d scored a few goals and done well,” recalled Smith, “but he told us he felt very lonely. He enjoyed the club and the football, but he made it clear he didn’t want to go down there, that he couldn’t hack living in a hotel.”
Determined to fulfil his promise of finding Cummings a club, Smith turned to Hibs, recommending Cummings to Under-20 coach James McDonaugh with the prediction the part-time gardener would be in the first team within a year.
On that score, he was wildly off target, Cummings finding himself on the bench as Hibs defeated Kilmarnock at Rugby Park barely three weeks after he had signed a two-year deal.
Cummings had to wait until November for his first appearance, going on to play 18 games, claiming his first goals as Terry Butcher’s side defeated Hamilton in the first leg of the relegation play-off, only to suffer the agony a few days later of missing the penalty which resulted in the Easter Road club dropping into the Championship.
Whether a kid aged just 18 should have been entrusted with the huge responsibility of taking that last and fatal spot-kick remains open to question even today, but Smith insists Cummings, who left the field in tears that day, deserves great credit for the way he has bounced back from that devastating moment.
He said: “I’d imagine a lot of players might well have buckled but, knowing Jason, he’d have seen the positives of the whole season rather than that one-off moment. Of course, he was bitterly disappointed, but he’s now scoring goals and I know he’s desperate to do well for Hibs.”
Cummings has provided almost as much entertainment in his after-match interviews as he has on the pitch, some of his comments such as having a “touch of an angel” or “opening a tin of beans” with his left foot provoking much laughter – but that, Smith insisted, is something to be embraced.
He said: “Jason is a bright character, there’s fun in him. He’s very much enjoying his youth, enjoying what he is doing. He can’t believe he is getting paid for doing something he loves.
“The more characters we have in football at the highest level the better. The game is a bit devoid of them.”
Football may be a bit more serious now that Cummings is pulling on a green shirt for Hibs rather than the green and yellow of the “Pythons” side within Hutchie’s kids school, but, Smith believes, the youngster’s story is one which should inspire.
He said: “I think having this second bite at the cherry has made him appreciate it all the more. It would have been a great sadness for him to have been lost to the game. I think he maybe lost interest in making a career out of football – but not in playing, and possibly he came back to us because he had good memories, and still having friends at the club helped.
“He’s gone from playing at places like Saughton pitch five, not one of the best, Duddingston and Inch Park in front of, almost literally, two men and a dog – although he did have great support with his family coming to watch him – to playing for Hibs.
“It is a story which is inspiring on so many levels, the local boy with talent, the injury and disappointment he suffered and how he’s making the most of this second chance, going from being a gardener little more than a year ago to making the headlines on all the back pages.
“It’s one I’d like to think will give hope to other boys, that no matter what happens you should keep working away because you never know when you might get that wee break. The most important thing, though, is first and foremost just to enjoy playing football.”