There would be few at Easter Road who gave the New Year a heartier welcome than Sam Stanton, the Hibs kid hoping 2014 will see his career finally take off.
He did, of course, have the same high hopes this time last year, but, instead, found himself enduring 12 months of frustration as injuries hindered his progress.
With three Hibs appearances as a substitute to his name in 2012, including a debut at Ibrox, the 19-year-old was farmed out to Cowdenbeath at the start of 2013, only to find season 2012/13 ended by a serious knee injury after just two games for the Fife club. By the time he’d recovered from that ligament damage, the Blue Brazil’s campaign had come to an end, but red tape prevented him donning a green-and-white shirt for the remainder of the campaign.
However, the young midfielder put that particular disappointment behind him in the second half of 2013 to force his way back into then boss Pat Fenlon’s plans, stepping from the bench on no fewer than 11 occasions. He was even pencilled in by the Irishman for a first start as Hibs faced Celtic in a match which was to end in a 1-1 draw.
Unfortunately, again, injury struck, Stanton tearing a thigh muscle as he warmed up for an Under-20 match and finding himself ruled out for another month. And by the time he’d shaken off that problem he returned to find a new management team in place, Terry Butcher and Maurice Malpas having taken over following Fenlon’s resignation.
Once more he found himself kicking his heels on the sidelines as Butcher and Malpas set about restoring the Edinburgh club’s fortunes, although his hopes were raised as he was restored to the bench for the victories over Ross County and Kilmarnock. That, however, was as close to the action as he got until Hearts first-footed their near neighbours 48 hours into the New Year.
It was little more than a cameo appearance, one which lasted barely seven minutes, but Stanton did enough to convince Butcher to retain him in the squad for the trip to Tannadice just three days later, the youngster again a substitute but, on this occasion, given the final 15 minutes.
Much like the team itself, which has lost just once in nine matches under Butcher, Stanton is targeting “small steps” as he bids to cement his place in Englishman’s plans and help the club continue to climb the Premiership table.
He said: “I think last year was frustrating more than anything because, as a young player, you are anxious to make your mark, to impress. I’d gone to Cowdenbeath to get experience, was enjoying it and then found myself injured and out for four months.
“After such a lengthy lay-off, I was just happy to be back training, although I couldn’t play any games. But then I was involved in the first ten or 11 games this season, only to suffer a small tear in a thigh muscle which put for out for four weeks.
“By the time I came back from that the management team had changed and while I’m sure they knew a lot about some of the boys, I don’t know just how much they knew about me and some of the younger lads.
“But it’s simply a case of getting your head down, working hard and if you play well enough you should get your chance and that’s what has happened.”
The past year has seen other youngsters such as Alex Harris, Jordon Forster and, most recently, Jason Cummings establish themselves in the first team squad alongside Danny Handling and Ross Caldwell, leaving Stanton to wonder “what if?” However, if a hint of envy would be nothing more than a natural human reaction, the youngster insists: “To be honest, I’m delighted for them. Danny, Alex, Brad Donaldson and myself have been in the same team since Under-12s while I’ve known Ross and Jordon for four or five years.
“Jason has done really well, he’s living something of a fairytale, having seemingly come from nowhere. I don’t think even he expected to come into the club and find himself playing four first team games in a row after only a few months. I see that happening to them and it gives me more motivation, more belief that if they can do it then so can I.
“Hopefully this will be a better year, I’m aiming to push on, hopefully get that first start and go on to hold down a first team place. It will be hard, though, particularly in midfield where you have the likes of Paul Cairney, Scott Robertson, Liam Craig and Lewis Stevenson holding down the midfield places at the moment with the likes of Kevin Thomson, Owain Tudur Jones, Tom Taiwo and Rowan Vine battling to get in. That competition is going to be even tougher when Boozy [Harris] comes back from his injury.”
While Easter Road has long been recognised as a breeding ground for talented young players, the Capital club’s youth system has been somewhat overshadowed this season, such talk having centred on the emerging kids at Dundee United, Aberdeen, St Mirren, Kilmarnock and elsewhere.
Stanton, though, insisted there’s still plenty promising youngsters populating Hibs’ East Mains training centre. He said: “I think the young players we have are as good as at any other club. We are doing well in both the Under-20 and East of Scotland Leagues, while the likes of myself, Danny, Alex, Jason and Brad are still eligible for Under-20 football.
“What you do find, however, is that while the team obviously comes first, it means more than any individual player, it’s also a pretty selfish game in that each and every one of us is battling against each other to be in the team for ever game and it’s a battle that never ends. You need to do it each and every day.”
Having had another sniff of first team action, Stanton hopes he’ll feature in Friday night’s clash with Aberdeen. He said: “I’ve never played against them or Celtic, so it would be nice to tick them off the list. It will be a hard game, they are a strong team, a strong squad and second top.
“But I don’t think going anywhere holds much fear for us the way we are playing at the moment. We’ve had a good festive period, picked up a lot of points and played some pretty decent football. The fact we were disappointed only to take a point against Dundee United shows how things have changed.
“Losing a two goal lead hurt, but these things happen in football. We did exactly the same thing to them a couple of times in the last few years. It’s a competitive league, one in which you can’t really predict results with any great certainty, as there seems to be a shock every week.”