AS one of four Hibs teenagers in the Scotland Under-20 squad for this weekend’s ADO Den Haag Youth tournament in the Netherlands, Bradley Donaldson could be forgiven if he casts an envious glance towards his three Easter Road team-mates in the travelling party – Alex Harris, Ross Caldwell and Danny Handling.
While that trio can reflect on a season which saw them break into Pat Fenlon’s first-team plans and then play in a Scottish Cup final, Donaldson can currently only dream of following in their footsteps.
However, he insisted there’s no way he’ll feel the odd man out among the group, adamant that his time will come and certain he’s only been denied the chance to impress manager Fenlon by a cruelly-timed injury. Donaldson had become a regular on the Hibs bench over the course of the season, but, although put on standby to enter the fray on a couple of occasions, he didn’t make that final step on to the pitch.
Today, however, the 18-year-old was refusing to feel sorry for himself, accepting he’s simply been the victim of a touch of bad luck. He is now relishing the prospect of using this weekend’s trip to The Hague as an opportunity to help build up his fitness ahead of pre-season training, which begins in just a matter of weeks.
He said: “I hurt my knee playing against Dunfermline in early March. We didn’t think it was too bad, but I went for an MRI scan and ended up out of action for ten or 11 weeks. It was a bad time to be injured. I’d been on the bench 17 or 18 times. I was told to warm up a couple of times, in matches against Hearts and Celtic, but I never managed to get onto the pitch.
“James McDonaugh [Hibs’ head of academy coaching] told me that if I hadn’t been injured I would probably have played at some point before the end of the season. I’d have loved to have done that, obviously, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“At 18 Boozy [Harris] and I are the young pups on the Under-20 squad and if you had told me at the start of the season I’d be involved with the first team I’d have laughed.
“It’s been really good to be involved at that level, great experience, but it was something I never expected. I am hoping to be involved again next year, although I’ll still be eligible for the Under-20s again.”
As a centre-half, Donaldson might have found himself in Fenlon’s thoughts to replace club skipper James McPake, who missed Hibs’ final three SPL matches and then the cup final through injury. His place went to 19-year-old Jordon Forster who, despite seeming to be behind Donaldson in the pecking order earlier in the season, earned rave reviews for his performances against Hearts, Kilmarnock, Dundee and Celtic.
And while he admitted he’d be lying if part of him wasn’t thinking “that could have been me”, Donaldson insisted he couldn’t have been happier to see Forster, Harris, Caldwell and Handling all grab the opportunities presented to them.
He said: “I’m just delighted for the boys. We are all pals, we all support each other as we are not just team-mates, but mates outside football because we’ve all been together so long. It was terrific to see the four of them all on the pitch at Hampden in a Scottish Cup final.
“Seeing them play for the first team is exciting because there’s many more boys in our group who perhaps haven’t got as much recognition as Boozy, Ross, Danny and Jordon.
“Dean Horribine made his debut at Rugby Park, but there’s also David Gold and Sam Stanton, who suffered a similar injury to me out on loan at Cowdenbeath, while Paul Grant was sitting in the stand with me at Hampden, as we were both part of the squad for the game.”
Donaldson was surprised to be part of the official party on the day, although he’d been on the bench for the final derby of the season and again at Kilmarnock a few days later. He was also a little taken aback to be included in Billy Stark’s Scotland Under-20 squad. He said: “I haven’t been away with Scotland since I was about 15. It’s been a while, but it was good to get the call-up. To have four of us from Hibs is great recognition for the youth system at Easter Road and it’s good we’ll have each other about while we are away.”
Donaldson revealed he was intrigued by the format of the tournament in Holland, to be played at the Kyocora Stadium, home of ADO Den Haag, He said: “We are playing 50 minute games in a group of four teams and then another match depending on our placing in the section. It will be shorter and sharper than we are used to and the fact we have so many games in such a short space of time will, I’d imagine, mean everyone in the squad will get a run-out. It looks like a very good tournament to be playing in.”
The young Scots play their first game against Brazilian club Cruzeiro tonight and then face FK Senice of Slovakia and Belgian outfit Club Brugge tomorrow, with the fourth game on Sunday. The host club are in the other half of the draw alongside Swansea, Legia Warsaw and a team from Mexico.
Scotland coach Stark has also included Hearts youngsters Jordan McGhee and David Smith in his 20-man squad.