After almost 50 matches, scoring more than 150 goals to sit top of both the East of Scotland and SPFL Under-20 Leagues, a two-week trip to a five-star resort in Turkey would appear ample reward for Hibs’ young guns.
But, rather than lounging by the pool and hopefully soaking up some winter sunshine in Antalya, the Easter Road kids will be hard at work preparing for the second half of what could be a memorable season.
Led by head of academy coaching James McDonaugh, the youngsters will be taking advantage of the European Community-funded Leonardo da Vinci Coaching Initiative, a much sought after lifelong learning programme which, administered by the SFA, has made around £40,000 available to cover travel, accommodation and football related costs.
Two games against opposition yet to be announced will be played, but for McDonaugh it’s an opportunity to recharge the batteries after what has already been a marathon season for the youngsters, stretching back to pre-season friendlies and retaining the prestigious Foyle Cup in Ireland, a tournament in which they played five games in as many days.
He said: “Being away for 13 nights together will be a new experience for a lot of them, but they are under no illusions that this is going to be a fortnight of work. Mention Turkey and straight away people think they are on holiday, that they’ll be able to put their feet up. But rest assured, they’ll be doing three or four sessions a day between being on the grass, in the gym, the pool or in the classroom.
“The boys need a break because they have played so many games, so while it will be intensive, we’ll make sure we strike the right balance. We have magnificent facilities here at East Mains, but a change of surroundings can help freshen things up and we are going to a five-star resort so we’d imagine everything over there will also be top class.
“It’s not going to be like Turkey in the summer, but hopefully it won’t be as bad as it might be here, but, having said that, there was the Champions League match between Galatasaray and Juventus which was abandoned because of a snow storm the other week. We’ll have to be prepared for all kinds of weather.”
As part of the Da Vinci project, the 17 youngsters making the trip will be expected to gain a greater understanding of a different culture, but McDonaugh revealed he hopes they can also further their footballing education with the Antalya Winter Cup, featuring Celtic, Ajax and Turkish clubs Galatasaray and Trabzonspor, taking place while they are there.
McDonaugh, who will be accompanied by two other coaches, said: “I’ve already enquired about trying to take the boys to watch one of the games or even to watch them training, that would be a great experience for them.
“We will see what we can do when we are over there, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we discover we are sharing the facilities with a team like Ajax or Galatasaray.”
One member of McDonaugh’s squad who won’t be making the journey is 18-year-old Jason Cummings, pictured, scorer of an incredible 30 goals so far this season, who will remain behind to train with Terry Butcher’s first team. McDonaugh said: “I always say the most important thing is seeing young players make the breakthrough. The manager has been impressed by Jason, he wants to keep him here and that will give him the chance to hopefully further impress Terry and Maurice Malpas.”
McDonaugh believes the festive break they others will enjoy before heading for Turkey on January 4 has come at exactly the right time, allowing a period of rest and the chance for some niggling injuries to clear before the youngsters begin their final assault on trying to land two league titles.
He said: “We’ve drawn our last couple of East of Scotland games. People see those results and think something has gone wrong, but the games are not easy, we have won some seven, eight or nine nil, but you go away from home, pitches are tight, heavy, sometimes barely playable and it’s a battle.
“We drew against Burntisland Shipyard which I thought was a good point, then drew away to Heriot-Watt University in conditions that were as bad as the Stoke-Manchester United game the other night, again a good point. It was getting to the point where we need to freshen ourselves up. Whether we’ll end up top of the leagues at the end of the season I don’t know. The most important thing is pushing people in the direction of the first team.”
But just as Butcher has praised the resilience of his players, McDonaugh has been impressed by the never-say-die attitude of his youngsters who have scored seven and six in the second half of matches against Dunfermline and Aberdeen’s Under-20 sides respectively in recent weeks.
He said: “We’ve done that all season, stretching back to the final of the Foyle Cup when we were 1-0 down at half-time but won 2-1 in the last minute. You keep asking them why do we keep going behind, why do we give teams a goal of a start, why do we lose early goals?
“But then you turn the negatives into positives and say how well they have done to come back time and time again. They never give up, it’s that winning mentality or fear of losing, whichever way you want to put it. The boys are learning their trade, they’ve scored something like 127 goals, plus another 30 in pre-season.”