Sean WELSH is motoring towards the SPL – a level he feels he should have been operating at long before now.
Having captained Hibs’ much-vaunted Under-19 team to league and cup glory some four years ago, the boyhood Hibee from Lochend would have been forgiven for presuming that he’d go on to make his SPL bow in a green and white jersey pretty soon afterwards.
Instead, three years later he was still waiting for a first-team debut. With frustration growing as he continued to be overlooked for players he felt he was better than, Welsh knew that if he was to go on and live up to the early hype, he had to cut ties with the club he loved.
Any sense of disappointment at leaving Hibs last summer was swiftly tempered by some reassuring words from Jackie McNamara, the former Partick Thistle manager, who offered him the perfect platform to get back on track at Firhill, where he had shone in a loan stint in the second half of last season.
Since signing on permanently with the Glasgow club, Welsh hasn’t looked back. The midfielder has been an integral member of a vibrant young Jags side romping clear at the top of the First Division, while he also has the sweetener of a Challenge Cup final showdown with Queen of the South to look forward to in Livingston this Sunday. Right now the grass is a whole lot greener than it had been at Easter Road for the ambitious 23-year-old.
“I had been at Hibs for years and it never really worked for me once I got promoted to the first team,” reflected Welsh, whose first-team involvement at Easter Road, beyond sitting on the subs’ bench on a clutch of occasions, was most notable for a horror jaw injury suffered after he was the victim of a pre-season training-ground punch from former teammate Martin Scott in 2011. “It was disappointing that I never got to play for the first team. I saw some players in the team that I didn’t think were as good as me, but that’s up to the managers.
“I was a bit unlucky a few seasons ago because, when I was on loan at Stirling Albion, Colin Calderwood wanted to bring me back to play me in the last five games of the season in the bottom six, but if you’re not registered at a club by the 31 March, you can’t play and I was still registered as a Stirling player at that point.
“Once Pat Fenlon came in, I think he just didn’t fancy me. He told me the club was going down the route of experience and I wasn’t going to be part of his plans, but I think I’d already made up my own mind by then that it was time to move on. I was wasting my time there and in the end I was happy to go somewhere I was wanted. I never doubted myself, though, and Jackie gave me the belief I needed; he told me when I came here that I’d get back to the top in no time as long as I was committed and worked hard, and that’s what I’ve done.
“It helped me a lot to know that Jackie wanted me and that I was going to play. That gave me a lot of confidence to kick on and try and prove that I can play in the SPL. I’m playing at a good level in front of a good amount of fans and I’ve got a chance to get back into the SPL and play in a cup final, so I honestly couldn’t be happier. I’m enjoying my football and I’m glad I moved on.”
Welsh wasn’t the only classy kid from that all-conquering youth team of 2008/09 to suffer frustration in bidding to break into the Hibs first team. Remarkably, David Wotherspoon is the only one who has gone on to make the cut at Easter Road, with the likes of Callum Booth, Thomas Flynn, Ewan Moyes, Scott Taggart and Lee Currie joining Welsh in the SFL, while striker Patrick Deane can be found at Perth Junior outfit Jeanfield Swifts. It is a state of affairs that has left Welsh baffled.
“It was a big surprise at the time for Hibs to win the league and cup double at the time because, even at that level, Celtic and Rangers usually dominated, so if someone had said back then that Spoony would be the only one that would kick on and make it in the SPL, it would have been a big surprise. It’s frustrating that not many of us made it at Hibs because we had a really good youth team. A lot of us just never got a chance to prove ourselves. Personally, I was unlucky with injuries, but even when I was fit I never really got a chance. Because the first team had been struggling over the past few years, I think possibly the managers were a bit scared of putting youngsters in. If we were given a proper chance in the first team, more of us would have made it because I firmly believe every one of us had the ability. We are all where we are, though, so we need to work hard to get to where we want to be. Someone like Lee Currie, for example, has been unlucky to end up at Berwick. From what I hear, teams higher up are starting to take an interest in him, so hopefully he gets himself back up because he’s too good for the Third Division.”
While Welsh will always wonder what might have been had he and his young teammates been afforded the chance to flourish together in the first-team, he is intent on using his sense of rejection as a driving force to help ensure he enjoys a long and fruitful career. For now, that plan couldn’t be going more swimmingly. “It’s great playing every week,” he continued. “I’m enjoying my football and we’re doing really well as a team. I knew when I spoke to Jackie about his plans last summer and saw the players he had signed that we had a chance of going up, but we never expected to go this well and reach a cup final.
“Jackie signed some good players in the summer and we’ve got a real depth to our squad. At the start of the season, when the pitches were good, we were playing really nice football. It’s harder to play nice football on the pitches just now but we’ve still got the players that will win us games.”
The January defection of manager McNamara to Dundee United could have seen the wheels come off for Thistle. Instead, they simply found fresh impetus under his replacement, Alan Archibald, overhauled leaders Morton and then pulled clear. “There was never a worry about Archie taking over from Jackie – all the players wanted him to get it,” said Welsh. “He’s been brilliant for us and you can see that in the way we’ve kicked on as a group. Of course we’re still wary of Morton, but we just focus on ourselves. If we keep winning our games, it will all take care of itself.”
Ironically, if the Jags can keep Morton at bay, it will deny one of Welsh’s best friends a crack at the SPL, with ex-Hibs right-back Taggart now starring at Cappielow. “Taggs is in a similar boat to myself. I know he’s a good player and he knows he’s a good player, so, although it’s disappointing to get released by Hibs, if you keep believing in yourself, you’ve always got a chance to get to the level you want. Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back to take a step forward. That’s the way me and Scott have looked at it.”
Welsh is not the only player jilted by an Edinburgh club currently driving Thistle back to the top flight, with former Hearts defender Conrad Balatoni flourishing at centre-back. “I travel through to Glasgow with Conrad and what happened at Hearts sounds similar to the situation I had at Hibs,” he said. “He was just at a point where he needed to move on and it’s done him the world of good as well. He’s been one of the outstanding players for us.
“He actually broke my foot in my last season at youth-team level and made me miss the league decider and the cup final, but I don’t hold that against him,” he smiled. “It was an accident.”
With the chance of another league and cup double looming, Welsh is clearly in no mood for dwelling on the past.