Poignant moments are never far away in the Hibs Under-20 camp, as a talented group of aspiring young footballers and their inspirational leader, James McDonaugh, continue to come to terms with the tragic death of 18-year-old academy prospect David Paul less than eight weeks ago.
It was the type of situation no football coach or youth team should ever have to deal with, but ever since the devastating news that David – or A4, as he was affectionately known at East Mains – had passed away in his sleep on the Sunday before Christmas, McDonaugh and his young starlets have been forced into some serious character-building.
The club’s head of academy coaching, who knew David from the age of 12, is proud of how his spirited young charges have rallied round and supported each other through this grim period, with every victory in the Under-20 league now assuming extra pertinence as the team take some quiet time to acknowledge their much-loved friend, who should be out there on the field helping them battle the Old Firm youngsters for the league title.
“This has easily been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my professional life,” said McDonaugh. “As a player I never had anything like this to deal with. As a coach, usually the hardest thing you have to deal with is telling young players they’re not getting a new contract, but this is hands-down the hardest thing. It’s been impossible at times. You think you’ve seen it all in football, but that was a major shock for me personally. I’ve lost someone really close to me.”
A winter training trip to Antalya, in Turkey, early last month, just two weeks after David’s passing, is viewed as crucial in helping the Hibs youngsters cope collectively with the turmoil of losing one of their peers. “Turkey ended up being vital for us,” said McDonaugh. “Before we went, there was quite a lot of talk about whether we should go or not. It was a hard decision because we were wary of taking the boys away from their families at a difficult time, but we had the full support of David’s mum and dad and, in hindsight, it was the best thing we did. The players were all together, so they were able to talk about it freely with each other or just sit and think about things. We all bounced off each other and helped each other through it, so it was a good trip in that regard. We got back at the weekend, then had our first 20s game on the Wednesday and then had David’s funeral on the Thursday.”
McDonaugh is still deeply humbled as he recalls being asked to give a reading at the funeral at St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church on George Street just three weeks ago. “That was probably the hardest thing of the lot for me,” he said. “I did a reading about David and his football. I know the family found it hard to ask me because they didn’t want to put pressure on me, but when his dad asked me to do it, I was very happy and very humbled because David was such a popular kid that there were so many people they could have asked. When I first met him, in April 2007, he was under-12 and he stuck out a mile as a footballer. I mentioned that in the reading. He was easy to talk about because I had so many nice memories of David.”
While David Paul will always be in the heart of all connected with the current crop of Hibs youngsters, McDonaugh is keen to see his bereaved players enjoy their football and pay tribute to their friend by making the best of the opportunity they have been blessed with. So far, so good, on that front as their impressive 3-2 victory over Hearts in Livingston on Tuesday night made it three wins out of four since David’s death and kept them within three points of league leaders Rangers.
“The boys always take a few moments to think about David,” explained McDonaugh. “We can’t keep doing it, but we keep dedicating wins to him. There’s nothing specific we do after games, but he’s always in our thoughts. I don’t want to put any extra pressure on the boys by saying anything like ‘Let’s win this for David’ because if we say that and they don’t do it, then they’ll feel like they’re letting David and his parents down. When we win, we like to remember him, but when we lose, we’re not beating ourselves up about it and feeling like we’ve let anybody down.
“All I’ve said to them is to put everything into their football, make sure they enjoy it and make sure they have no regrets, because there’s a kid who did nothing wrong and hasn’t had the chance to do that. I spoke to them in Turkey and said the best tribute they can pay to David is simply to make sure they make the best of themselves. David was a boy who made the most of every day – his dad said even if he came home injured, he still loved being a professional footballer. I just want all my players to do the same as David did and give it their best shot. If their best isn’t good enough, then at least they’ve got good memories.”
Tuesday’s win had extra significance as Gordon Paul, David’s father, was among those who braved the wintry weather to take his place in the stand at Almondvale. “I spoke to David’s mum and dad just the other day and his dad was there watching the boys the other night, so that’s the Hibs family that everyone talks about coming together,” said McDonaugh. “I’m sure David was looking down giving us a wee helping hand to get over the line against Hearts the other night.”
It was fitting that on such a night, one of the best players in green and white was left-back Ryan Baptie, one of David’s best friends. Baptie, also 18, last month had his upper arm tattooed with the words ‘Our memories will stay with me forever in my heart, my best friend, my brother. I love you.’
“I wanted something personal to honour David,” said Baptie. “I knew him from when I first joined Hibs, about 11 years old. I travelled to training with him for pretty much my whole Hibs career. When we became full-time, we could both drive so we shared lifts. I saw him every day and we spent loads of time together. He was my best mate. It was very, very hard for me. We’re now a really tight-knit group after what happened to David.”