It seems at times as if young players come from nowhere. One minute they are known only to those die-hard fans who take the closest interest in their clubs’ youth teams, the next their names are on everyone’s lips.
But while every supporter takes great delight at seeing “one of their own” make their way through the ranks and into top flight football, that moment is the culmination of years of hard work behind the scenes known only to the youngster, their family and the coaches whose dedication, patience and skill has made that magical moment come true.
The faces of those responsible go largely unrecognised by supporters, but you can bet they are the ones sporting the broadest smiles when they see the talent they have nurtured, often from the age of just ten, step onto the pitch as a first-team player.
It is therefore little wonder that the youth coaches at Easter Road are feeling particularly proud today, having seen five boys who joined Hibs on the same day in August 2005 feature in Pat Fenlon’s squad, an achievement described by Bill Hendry, the club’s head of youth development, as “unique.”
Alex Harris, Danny Handliing, David Gold, Dean Horribine and Bradley Donaldson were total strangers when they first met. Today they are a band of brothers, a tight-knit group of young hopefuls who know just how much they owe those – both family and coaches – who have stood behind them over the intervening years.
Harris and Handling have, of course, already made their first team debuts. Donaldson has enjoyed a seat on the bench and, along with Gold and Horribine, is tipped to be the next to graduate from Hibs impressive East Mains training complex.
While the quintet enjoy the distinction of having signed on at Hibs on the same day, they’ll be joined in Fenlon’s squad next season by Paul Grant, Ross Caldwell, Jordon Forster and Sam Stanton, meaning a remarkable nine home-grown players from this season’s under-20 side will be vying for a first team shirt next season.
As the five posed for photographs on the Easter Road pitch, Dave McMillan, head of the youth programme, said: “It’s the best feeling in the world. Most of us here are part-time, but that makes everything worthwhile, every minute of those eight years.
“I have been here nearly 19 years and every time you see someone make his debut, it gives you that buzz. If they go on to great things, all you can say is that you have helped. That’s what it is all about and the key is all the staff give 100 per cent. The vast majority are Hibs supporters, so to see them play for the first team, knowing you have helped someone, really gives you great satisfaction.”
Teamwork among the coaches is, McMillan insists, the key to the success Hibs have enjoyed over the years in rearing their own talent. He said: “We have a lot of people working at youth level, scouts, coaches and support staff who have all helped the lads along the way. It’s really difficult to have any one person say they can take credit for any one player.
“We pride ourselves on a continuity – whoever has been working with the boys at under 12s or 13s is often there as well when they are in the 17s, 18s and 19s. It’s a comfortable environment for the boys as they grow up. There’s a good relationship as well between the coaches which, I think, comes through to the players. They know we all get on well together, that [it] is very much a team effort, that someone at under-10 level is every bit as important as someone at under-19. The players appreciate that and know the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. There are no shocks in the transition between different age groups. If they were unhappy we would lose them but, instead, they’ve been here for a long time.”
McMillan admits it can be no easy task at times as coaches deal with youngsters from diverse backgrounds and as they grow through those adolescent years familiar to all parents against the requirement for a discipline, which sees them give up many aspects of a teenage life in favour of hoping to make it to the top in football.
He said: “It’s difficult to have any programme in place for a collective group because you rally have to treat each player as an individual. Every player is different, they all have different needs. You have to be reactive. Kids come with different footballing strengths, different psychological and personal strengths.”
As much input as the coaches have, McMillan insisted the support of the youngsters’ families can’t be under-estimated in any way. He said: “You have to give credit to the families because there is a huge support from mums and dads. We look on a partnership between the family, the club and player as being central.
“If parents and club are saying the same thing it becomes much easier to support the player. It’s a huge sacrifice for families and players from the age of ten upwards, that commitment to train two, three and sometimes four nights a week, the cost factor of driving them about the country, dropping them off and picking them up – although we try to help as much as we can.
“There’s also that need to be disciplined. Their friends are may be enjoying other aspects of their adolescence and they are having to stick to early bed and so on.”
While Harris, Handling and Co can count themselves as being among the lucky few who make it all the way through the years to the stage they are now at, McMillan admitted it is difficult telling a young hopeful there will be no future for him at Hibs – but insisted each kid shown the door leaves a better player and person.
He said: “It would be easier if we had a crystal ball, but we don’t. We tell every player, every parent, there’s no guarantee, but we’d hope that their time at Hibs means they leave a better player and better person. We’d also like to think we get more right than wrong, but it’s giving people that opportunity to develop, but also keeping realism there, that school and family are important.
“And if they are leaving us for whatever reason, we try to help them find another club. We are very fortunate that we are in the top four or five clubs in Scotland, there’s another 30 or 40 beneath us who would be delighted to take them.”
As a coach, McMillan has been well aware of the mutterings among some fans, particularly when things aren’t going well, as to where all the youngsters have gone. But his reply simply is that they are there.
He said: “We have really good players at the club and there’s more behind the five we have here today and, you could argue, there’s been some that have been here and left who might come back to haunt us.
“It’s difficult, but we all understand the pressures of having to win on a Saturday. It can be difficult for managers to put young players in. It’s sometimes a gamble. It’s not frustrating, but we understand the stresses and the realism of professional football. We have the luxury in that results don’t matter, but they do on a Saturday and it can be difficult to make the right decision as to when to bring young kids in.
“I think everyone recognises the talent we have here. It’s managing that talent. If you put a young player in at the wrong time, it can maybe damage his confidence and set him back. It’s about striking that balance.”