A YEAR ago, Jack Verth came within a whisker of Hampden glory, part of the Hibs Under-19 side beaten in the semi-final of the SFA Youth Cup by Rangers at Ibrox.
Tomorrow, the 18-year-old will travel a little further along the M8 determined that this time round he’ll be going all the way in the competition when the Easter Road youngsters face St Mirren.
Already the young Hibees have knocked Capital rivals Hearts, leaders of the SPL’s Under-19 League out of the competition and know a win in Paisley will see them take another huge stride towards their dream.
But while he and his team-mates go into the fourth round tie aiming to make it nine games unbeaten – they’ve won seven and drawn one of their last eight – Verth admitted the Buddies will prove tough opposition.
Edinburgh-born but having lived in Broxburn since the age of seven, Verth said: “St Mirren beat us 2-1 in the first game of the season although we had Bradley Donaldson sent off after only half-an-hour.
“We beat them 2-0 a few weeks ago, though, and I think the fact tomorrow’s match is being played at St Mirren Park will help us with the bigger pitch. It will be hard but we are on a good run, eight matches unbeaten is terrific for any side, not just a youth team, and when we play well I don’t think there are too many who can touch us.
“We’ve also got our Christmas night out tomorrow after the game before we go into a two-week break so we don’t want to be on a downer for that.”
However, centre-half Verth believes the fighting spirit shown by coach James McDonaugh’s side as they came back to dump Hearts in the previous round can carry them a long way.
A goal behind with only four minutes remaining, Hibs equalised through Ross Caldwell with the striker grabbing an extra-time winner to spark great celebrations among a group of players who had controversially been beaten by the young Jambos only a few weeks earlier.
Verth said: “Hearts are a good side but we always felt we’d get another chance in that game, particularly when you have someone like Ross around. We got it, Ross scored and then he got another. They were both ‘route one’ sort of goals but we are a team who try to pass the ball.
“We have a lot of very good players in our side, we work hard for each other and we do play good football but when you are a goal down with only a few minutes left in a cup tie then you just need to get the ball forward and look to score.
“There was a great atmosphere that day, a crowd of around 2500 in Easter Road and they certainly helped us through when it didn’t look as if it was going to happen for us.
“It’s too early to start thinking that we can go all the way if we win tomorrow but we did reach the semi-final last season. Although we were beaten by Rangers I thought we were the better team – they’ll say differently – but they got the goal and from a corner which is a killer when you are a defender.”
The long-term goal for Verth and his fellow youngsters is, of course, to make new boss Pat Fenlon sit up and take notice, the former Hutchison Vale stopper revealed that although he’s been a lifelong Hibs fan, the club’s reputation for producing home-grown talent was another reason for signing on.
Now in his fifth year with Hibs, he said: “The way the youth system operates here has to be an attraction to any young player. Look at the current first team, Garry O’Connor, Ian Murray, Lewis Stevenson, Paul Hanlon, David Wotherspoon and Callum Booth have all come up through the ranks.”
The early signs under Fenlon are equally promising with the Irishman having given Caldwell a seat on the bench for last week’s ill-fated match at Motherwell while Dean Horribine, another of Verth’s team-mates took part in this week’s bounce game against Celtic.
Verth said: “The new manager hasn’t had a great deal to do with us, sorting out the first team has to be his priority but he has come to watch us already. Ross deserves his chance, he’s been banging the goals in all season. Seeing one of your own number getting that opportunity gives everyone a lift, you see the rewards are there and that you have to be ready to take your chance if it comes your way.”
However, Verth admitted the current lack of a reserve league was hampering young talent with the likes of Scott Smith, Scott Taggart, Calum Antell, David Crawford and Lewis Horner all on loan to gain much-needed experience.
He said: “When fans are asking where the next batch of youngsters is coming from they have to remember it’s a bit much to expect boys to jump from Under-19 football straight into the first team. Some might do it depending on how they are built, others need to get used to playing against stronger opponents, grown men. I think it is a very big ask for an Under-19 player to go straight into playing regular first-team football.”