TERRY BUTCHER believes Hibs’ youngsters will emerge battle-hardened and ready to flourish after their gruelling fight to keep the club in the Scottish Premiership.
The likes of Jordon Forster, Alex Harris, Danny Handling, Sam Stanton and Jason Cummings – all aged 20 or younger – have featured prominently in a downtrodden Hibs team that has toiled badly this season and lurched into a relegation play-off against Hamilton Accies. Leading 2-0 from Wednesday’s first leg, Butcher’s team are red-hot favourites to secure their safety in tomorrow’s second leg at Easter Road.
While everyone at Hibs will be delighted to see the back of this wretched campaign, the manager admits his main source of solace from a difficult start to his tenure in Leith has been the manner in which his youngsters have coped with such a difficult first-team baptism.
Assuming Hibs can see the job through and retain their top-flight status, Butcher is confident that his young players will go from strength to strength as a result of being catapulted into the heat of battle. “The most exciting thing to happen this season has been the younger players coming through,” Butcher told the Evening News. “It’s not been particularly pleasurable for them in terms of results and our league position, but they’ve certainly gained some great experience in the first team.
“Sometimes you learn more from poor results than if you’re winning all the time. Experience can be hard to get for young players but, if you can get it quickly, it can toughen you up and make you a better player. Sometimes when you have setbacks and bad experiences with the team, it makes you more determined to play in a winning team and start climbing the league. To do that, you’ve got to learn from what you’ve experienced and make sure you increase your standard, your fitness and your levels of performance in training and in games.”
While Butcher feels this season will toughen his kids up, he would rather have been able to pitch them into a more favourable environment. He said: “If they’re good enough, they’ll get in the team and, if they play well enough in the team, they stay in the team. With the younger players, you have to take them out for a while and then put them back in and the time you take them out gets less and less as they get more used to it. That’s what happens in a normal environment anyway. We’ve not really had that normal environment this season, though, because we’ve been needing results every week and we’ve had a lot of injuries. That’s meant we’ve had to throw our youngsters into a very difficult environment.
“Mentally and physically they’ve handled it well, though, and they’ll be even better next year. No one knows at the moment how good these boys can be but the important thing is that they become the best they can be. It is exciting putting younger players in and it helps when they’re in beside good pros. They have developed very well despite how the team has been doing and that shows their strength of character, which is pleasing.”
With so many experienced pros on the books at Easter Road, Butcher has had the option to withdraw his youngsters from the firing line and rely on his older heads to pull them out of the mess that this season has become. However, the manager insisted he never contemplated casting aside his promising youngsters at the nitty-gritty stage of the season.
“You pick a team that you think has the right blend. The fact they’re young doesn’t matter to me,” Butcher continued. “If they’ve got good legs, in terms of energy and strength, that’s a bonus, but younger players will give you everything. I’m not saying the older players don’t but sometimes the younger players have no fear and no worries and they just go out and play, which is very exciting.
“It’s nice when that happens because it gives other players confidence when they’re playing alongside a talented youngster who’s going to run all day for the team and help you out. We certainly have a lot of young talent here.”
Butcher is aware of Hibs fans’ penchant for seeing homegrown youngsters come through and flourish in the first team and he is intent on continuing to promote kids from the academy at East Mains. He bristles at any preconceived notion that he favours packing his teams with seasoned pros.
“Hibs have got a fantastic history of young players coming through and doing well. Bill Hendry [head of youth development], James McDonaugh [head of academy coaching] and all the other coaches have done a great job. It’s been a superb team effort from the Hibs academy to produce these players and they know they’ll get game time. I heard people say that I don’t promote younger players and don’t give them opportunities but if you look at my record, it’s clear that I do. In my time at Hibs, there have been some good young players who have come in and done very well. You only have to look at Sam Stanton. I picked Danny Handling in my first game at St Mirren, and Jordon Forster’s done very well too, so there’s lots of good young players who have had good game time here.
“Players like Alex Harris and Jordon have now played in a Scottish Cup final and been involved in a relegation battle. It’s different ends of the scale in terms of enjoyment but, if you come through them, then it does toughen you up. You can’t be winning football matches all the time in your career; you go through reversals and setbacks and it’s how you react to them that’s important.”