Hibs boss Pat Fenlon has revealed he’s carrying out an overhaul of Hibs’ youth system in a bid to ensure greater numbers of youngsters make the breakthrough into the Easter Road first team.
In recent months, fans have seen the likes of Danny Handling, Alex Harris, Sam Stanton and Jordon Forster force their way into Fenlon’s plans, but at the club’s annual general meeting, one shareholder described Hibs current youth system as “a shambles,” asking the manager if he was “appalled” that none of his players had been included in Scotland’s Under-21, Under-19 or Under-17 squads.
However, while insisting he was not appalled, Fenlon admitted there was a “need for change” in the club’s approach, particularly in youth recruitment, although the Under-20 squad presently top both the Scottish Premiership table and the East of Scotland League.
He said: “There are a lot of good coaches, but a lot needs to change, the biggest thing being our recruitment policy. We are trying to do that but it takes a lot of work.”
The process, though, is already under way, with Irish youngsters Cody Mulhall and Gareth McCaffrey arriving to join the youth academy ranks along with former Tottenham kid Tom Gardiner and Edinburgh-born Taylor Hendry, who has returned to the Capital from Ipswich Town.
Seventeen-year-old Mulhall, who took his tally for the season into double figures as he scored in the Under-20s’ victory over Falkirk on Tuesday night, has already had a taste of the first team squad, accompanying Fenlon’s players to McDiarmid Park a couple of weeks ago in order to familiarise himself with what goes on come match day in the top flight.
And in bringing 21-year-old Frenchman Abdellah Zoubir in on loan from FC Istres, Fenlon revealed he was actively seeking recruits from the continent, not only at first-team level but also to be integrated into the youth system. While pointing out he didn’t have total responsibility for youth policy, Fenlon added: “I have a big say in it because I am looking for players coming through. There is a need for change, but the biggest issue is recruitment.”
Another shareholder challenged whether the club’s £5 million purpose-built training centre at East Mains on the outskirts of Ormiston was providing value for money, asking if the running costs could be justified as it was “not as successful as we would like it to be” and querying whether the cash spent on day-to-day operations there might be better invested in a new player.
Chairman Rod Petrie assured the meeting that a close eye was kept on costs throughout the club and insisted strenuous efforts had been made in every area to curtail spending in order to concentrate on ensuring the best team possible was put on the pitch, an exercise which had helped return the club to the black with turnover up and wages down.
He said: “All the costs of running the training centre are included in the accounts.
“The board gets financial information on a monthly basis, operating costs against budget. Are we getting value for money?
“I think we have kind of taken the training centre for granted since it opened six years ago, but I still get a surprise when players recruited from outwith Scotland see the facilities and are blown over by the scale and quality we have.
“It’s not just for the grassroots and young players in the Academy, it’s also for the first team.
“I think it represents value for money, but like every other aspect of our business it is not beyond question or scrutiny.”
Petrie, however, pointed to Hibs’ long tradition of producing home-grown talent, describing it as a “fundamental ethos” and recalled the desire of previous managers to have a training ground they could call their own rather than have players trailing around Edinburgh in search of suitable factilities. He said: “Tony Mowbray said that if we had £1 million not to give it to him to spend on a player but to invest it in the club. That was a pivotal moment and two or three years later we had a training centre to die for.”
Petrie was also questioned as to what was being done to bring in outside investment to help Hibs take bigger strides forward at a time when others were “in a perilous state”, with the inquisitor adamant he wanted to see “a proper business plan” in place. But he countered that there was no queue of people ready to pump money into the club seeking short-term success when the board’s goal was to ensure Hibernian Football Club was around “next year, the year after that and for those who come after you”. He added: “We do not want to put that in jeopardy by some short-term venture that could end up in financial disaster.
“Gianni Infantino, UEFA’s general secretary, said a few years ago ‘What kind of healthy business model is to wait for a white knight on a horse with a lot of money to throw around and one day jump on his horse and ride away?’
“You have to come back to basics, live within your means or put the club as risk. The best investment in the football team and the club is to have a club that’s sustainable, that’s the legacy we have to focus on.
“We break even, there’s no dividend, no return for any investment. The monies, the resources we have are from supporters and people attending matches. We spend as much as we can on the pitch and as you can see from the accounts, strenuous efforts have been made to curtail things elsewhere to concentrate it on the pitch.”