James McDonaugh is proud to see his Hibs side looking down on the Old Firm from their new-found perch at the top of the SPFL Under-20 league, but he is adamant their lofty position will count for nothing if more of his youngsters don’t follow the likes of Jordon Forster and Danny Handling into the first team.
Hibs’ Head of Academy Coaching could hardly be happier at present. His Under-20s team and his East of Scotland version are rattling in goals left, right and centre and generally swatting aside all-comers. But, for all that he is thrilled with the progress of his young team, who hit the summit after a 5-0 demolition of Ross County on Tuesday night, his main source of satisfaction is in seeing his protégés like Handling and Forster reassert themselves in the first-team picture under new manager Terry Butcher.
His chief objective, rather than scooping league titles, is to ensure as many of his latest batch of starlets can follow their recent predecessors into the top team. “I’m proud of the fact we’re top of the table because it’s a tight league with a lot of good teams, but if we’re top of the league and no players go into the first team, that’s not good enough for me,” said McDonaugh. “If we finished bottom of the league, but got a player through into the first team, that’s more of a result for me than winning the league.”
McDonaugh feels it is a massive achievement just being top at this stage of the season, even if Hibs have played a game more than Celtic.
“Celtic have dominated the Under-20s every year since we did the double [in 2009], so they’re the team to beat and they’ll probably be the team that win it again,” he admitted. “Hopefully we can be up there challenging again because we’ve had a few really good years. I’d say we’ve punched above our weight. To be top going into Christmas is an achievement in itself.”
The main feature of the Under-20s’ surge up the table in recent weeks has been their rampant scoring form, with 16 goals in their last three games alone. Striker Jason Cummings, who has scored almost 30 goals in all this season, has been the most eye-catching performer and has already earned first-team exposure with two appearances off the bench over the past month. His rapid emergence has been an unexpected bonus for McDonaugh.
“Jason’s been a real find for us. He was at Hutchie Vale last season so he’s come out of nowhere. He’s pretty small, but he can hold the ball in, he’s quick, he can run in behind. It’s always great to have someone come through the Academy from a young age and make it to the first team but to pluck him from a Boys’ Club and have him make his first-team debut so quick is just as rewarding for me.
“I got tipped off about him and we got him in for training for a few months at the end of last season and he really enjoyed it. He’s a Hearts supporter and Hearts came in for him, but I really pushed to get him in and he chose Hibs so that was brilliant for me.
“He’s the one grabbing the headlines because he’s scoring regularly, but I wouldn’t say he’s a total standout in relation to his team-mates. Between the East of Scotland and the Under-20s, he’s scored about 28 goals this season, and that’s always going to catch people’s eyes. He’s got to be looking at what Danny Handling’s doing at the moment. Danny’s only a year older than Jason and then there’s Ross Caldwell, who’s still only 20. The three of them are all different types of strikers, but they’re all of roughly the same standard. If I was a manager and I had three young boys with that talent at my disposal, I’d be delighted. They’ve all got goals in them. Jason’s come out the pack just now, but you usually find the other boys got an extra buzz when they see their mate in the first team. There are one or two others who I’d expect to be around the first-team in the next three or four months.”
McDonaugh has been buoyed by Butcher’s apparent appetite to embrace youth, with Forster, who recently signed a contract extension, and Handling mainstays of his fledgling tenure so far, while Caldwell and Cummings have featured off the bench.
“I’ve loved every minute of it under Terry and Maurice Malpas,” said McDonaugh. “I think they’re keen on the young boys. Since they’ve come in they’ve had nine or ten of my young boys training with the first team, just a day here and there. They want to see them all play, so that’s really positive for me.”
Part of McDonaugh’s role is to ensure the likes of Sam Stanton and Caldwell remain on an even keel as they flit in and out of the first-team picture, while he has also had to keep Alex Harris out of the dumps during the teenage winger’s lengthy and untimely injury lay-off. He also feels forgotten man Callum Booth, a member of the 2009 double-winning youth team currently on loan at Raith Rovers, could yet force his way back into the picture at Easter Road. “I’m really proud of the players we’ve got at all the different age groups,” said McDonaugh. “We really have got so many terrific young players here.”