At this point three years ago, Jason Cummings was still waiting to break his senior duck. In the intervening period, the burgeoning Hibs attacker has packed in a whopping 68 goals at club level.
Given the fact he has now been in the public domain for three and a half years, bulged nets at such a regular rate over the past three seasons and been the subject of seven-figure offers from England, there is a temptation in some quarters to take his remarkable goal record for granted and forget that he is still only 21.
In a Scottish context at least, Hibs have on their hands an exceptional young striker. The only Scots currently aged 23 or under who boast scoring stats remotely comparable to Cummings are the Hearts pair of Jamie Walker and Callum Paterson. Walker, the 23-year-old creative midfielder, has 41 career goals to his name for Raith Rovers and Hearts, while Paterson, at 22, has scored 39 for the Tynecastle side, predominantly from right-back. In short, no other Scottish striker of the emerging generation boasts anything like Cummings’ stats.
Indeed, his record compares favourably when set against any other reputable Scottish striker who has come on to the scene since the turn of the Millennium. Cummings is currently 21 years and seven-and-a half months old. Just to recap, he has 68 goals in all competitions at club level. By the same age, Leigh Griffiths had 62; Jordan Rhodes 59; Kris Boyd 47; Steven Fletcher 45; Steven Naismith 40. Stevie May had 75, although 19 of those were scored in Scotland’s fourth tier with Alloa Athletic. Kenny Miller, David Goodwillie, Derek Riordan, Johnny Russell, Garry O’Connor and James McFadden all had less than 40 career goals, including those scored in loan spells in the lower leagues, by Cummings’ current age.
Of course, this is not to suggest the Hibs forward is better than all or indeed any of these strikers. Judgment on that can only truly be made in a decade’s time. Analysis of Cummings’ career so far is obviously skewed by the fact his goals have come almost exclusively during his club’s three seasons in Scotland’s Championship. Of the players previously listed, only Griffiths and May also plundered the majority of their goals in the relevant timeframe from Scotland’s second tier or lower. Rhodes’ goals came in England’s League One and League Two, while the others did their work predominantly in Scotland’s top flight.
Cummings has played half a season in the Premiership and is yet to score a goal. The mitigating factors for this are obvious, however. He had only just turned 18 when he was pitched in for his debut. And, perhaps even more pertinently, he was playing up front in the most dysfunctional Hibs team of the modern era as Terry Butcher oversaw a catastrophic relegation. For a raw and immature teenager who was still trying to get to grips with professional football after working as a gardener just a year earlier, the environment was anything but harmonious.
Any notion, however, that Cummings is merely a flat-track bully who has benefited from playing against part-timers in the lower leagues needs dispelled instantly. Despite operating from the second tier, 32 of his goals have come either against Premiership opposition or in Championship matches against sides of genuine promotion-chasing substance like Rangers, Hearts, Dundee United and Falkirk. Even if the 18 goals he has scored against part-time teams like Ayr United, Alloa, Dumbarton and Cowdenbeath were to be removed from the equation, Cummings would still have 50 against full-time teams to his name.
It stands to reason that, playing in the top flight, the likes of Fletcher and Boyd will have had to work that bit harder for some of their goals than Cummings. But any notion that the Premiership is a totally different environment to the second tier is overplayed by those who remain sceptical about Cummings’ top-flight suitability. The Premiership is not full of John Terry-calibre centre-backs. The defenders at Partick Thistle and Kilmarnock are not on a drastically different level to those at Morton and Queen of the South.
If Cummings is capable of whipping in the type of sublime, high-quality finish he managed on Friday night against Dundee United, there is no reason to suggest he wouldn’t be able to do likewise against Motherwell or Ross County. Likewise, the two free-kicks he has curled in away to Raith Rovers and Morton in recent months spring to mind as goals that were executed well enough to beat Premiership goalkeepers. Indeed any argument that a likely ascent to the top flight next season will have an adverse effect on his goal ratio can probably be countered by the fact he has already scored against four of Scotland’s top five teams. A tally of 13 goals against Hearts and Rangers alone over the past three seasons suggests Cummings is unlikely to be found wanting when he makes the step up.
Although the opposition on a weekly basis has not been top level, Cummings has had to show his mettle to emerge as Scotland’s great young striking hope. Let’s not forget that it was he whose spot-kick miss in the shootout against Hamilton Accies three years ago led to Hibs dropping to the Championship in the first place. As a former Hearts youngster and supporter, and with only two goals his name by then, Cummings’ Hibs career could easily have been over at that point. Instead he has responded in the most emphatic fashion and, aided by Alan Stubbs and cajoled by Neil Lennon, established himself as his team’s go-to man over a sustained period. At times – notably in the recent win over Hearts – he has looked like a veteran leader of the Hibs attack, which is no easy feat for a 21-year-old considering the pressure on the Easter Road side to win promotion over the past couple of years.
Like any striker, he has endured his droughts and off-days, while he has also had a couple of moments of madness – notably his “Panenka” penalty in the Scottish Cup semi-final a year ago and Friday’s attempt to punch in a goal with his hand against Dundee United. However, while his dogged team-mates bailed Cummings out after his red card at Tannadice, it is generally the other way around, with the former Hutchison Vale player so often stepping up to the mark when Hibs are in peril. The majority of his goals this season have altered the amount of points his team would have collected by turning defeats into draws or draws into wins. Had Hibs cashed in on their main hitman last summer, it is doubtful whether they would even be top of the Championship – never mind six points clear and in a Scottish Cup semi-final.
Both the stats and the naked eye suggest Cummings is getting better all the time and ready to make his presence felt in the Premiership. Two seasons ago, he scored 21. Last season, he hit 25. Despite being benched for more than a quarter of his side’s league games this season as Lennon challenged him to improve in certain areas, he already has 20 goals to his name.
There are still rough edges to Cummings’ all-round game, but he is now a far more accomplished player than the one who drew widespread scorn for squandering a couple of big chances in Hibs’ play-off defeat at Ibrox almost two years ago. He now has a knack for striking when it matters most, as he did on Friday.
Hibs will need others to step up on Saturday as their fox in the box serves a suspension at home to Dumbarton, but, in the longer term, the Easter Road club can content themselves with the fact their ever-improving striker is contracted until 2020 and sure to do plenty more damage in a green-and-white shirt before he eventually moves on. Curiously, Cummings is yet to crown his prolific start in professional football with a hat-trick. Given the impressive manner of his progression, it is surely only a matter of time before he impacts a high-stakes match with a treble.