After a frustrating couple of years on the periphery of the Hibs first team, Sam Stanton senses things might finally be coming together for him.
The 19-year-old, whose progress has been hindered by injuries, is now hoping to take another significant step in his career by making his first-ever start for the Easter Road side against a player who stands as the ultimate modern-day ambassador for any ambitious attacking midfielder coming through the club’s youth ranks.
Stanton’s time in the early phases of Hibs’ youth system briefly overlapped with a period when Scott Brown was running the show in the north east of Edinburgh. The little Leither never got the chance to meet Brown in person before his £4.4 million move to Celtic in 2007 but, with injuries and suspensions taking their toll on Terry Butcher’s preferred starting XI, the highly-regarded youngster is in contention to go head-to-head with the Celtic and Scotland captain when Hibs welcome the Scottish champions to Easter Road this Sunday lunchtime.
“I used to watch Scott when he was at Hibs,” recalls Stanton. “He was still at Hibs when I arrived, but I never met him. I just watched him as a fan or as a ballboy in games that he was playing in. He’s a great player who I really liked and it would be brilliant to play against him.
“He was once in the same situation I’m in just now and now he’s captain of Celtic and Scotland so he’s someone you look up to. He used to bomb on and attack when he was at Hibs but now he’s got it all. He can defend and attack so it’ll be a big test to play against him.”
Despite being handed his debut by former manager Pat Fenlon as a 17-year-old two years ago, Stanton has managed only 16 appearances for Hibs, all as a substitute. Crucially, having caught the eye of Butcher, he has featured in each of the last four matches, with his most productive outing yet coming in Saturday’s 3-2 defeat to St Mirren when he came off the bench at the interval and helped initiate a rousing second-half fightback which almost brought a draw from 3-0 down.
Injuries allied to the suspension of Scott Robertson ensure there are vacancies in the side for Sunday’s match, and Stanton is hopeful that this is the weekend he finally gets to savour his first start.
“I’ve still not had a start even though I’ve been around the first team for a couple of years, so that’s what I’m looking for now,” he said. “It’s been frustrating. I feel like I’ve done okay when I’ve come on but Saturday against St Mirren was my best performance yet. A lot of the time I’ve just been coming on for ten or 15 minutes to help defend a lead or whatever so it’s difficult to show what I can do. But I think the 45 minutes against St Mirren gave me a good amount of time to show people what I’m about.
“I’ve come on in each of the last four games when there are other players the manager could have put on before me so he seems to like me. It’s a good feeling to be picked ahead of more experienced players. There are a couple of injuries and Robbo’s suspended so there’s a good chance that I might get to start. I’m just looking to establish myself in the team now and start playing regularly.”
Most of Stanton’s appearances off the bench have come as a wide player, but he sees himself predominantly as a central midfielder. He enjoyed a rare opportunity to play in the middle against St Mirren when he was deployed in the No.10 role in support of striker James Collins, flanked by his under-20 team-mates Alex Harris, on the right, and Jason Cummings, on the left. Long term, he is keen to add extra defensive nous to his game, the way Brown has since moving to Celtic, in order to become the complete midfielder.
“I’ve come on out wide in most of the games and I’m happy playing anywhere across midfield but I see myself as a central midfielder and that’s where I’d like to play long term,” he explained. “I like attacking. I don’t mind doing the defensive stuff either but I’m better going forward. Ultimately I’d like to be the complete midfielder who can do the dirty stuff as well as attacking. I want to be a box-to-box midfielder. I’ve been working on that a lot and I’m getting better. The new gaffer’s helping me a lot. He tells me to move the ball quicker and to get up and down the pitch even more than I was before so he’s told me a lot of things I need to do to add to my game.”
Stanton has been inspired at the sight of his peers, Harris and Jordon Forster, establishing themselves in the Hibs team over the past year, to the point where they have both secured new improved contracts. His own deal lasts until summer 2015, so he knows he still has some time on his side as he bids to become a long-term fixture in the squad. “It’s been good seeing Jordon and Alex do well and it’s driven me on to try and do the same myself,” he continued. “It’s good to see team-mates who you’ve known for years all getting their chance in the first team.
“I’ve been here since under-13s. I’ve known Alex for about eight or nine years so it’s brilliant playing beside him in the first team. We know each other’s game so it’s easier to know what he’s going to do as opposed to someone you’ve never really played with before. We have a bit of telepathy almost. On Saturday, he was playing on the right, Jason was on the left and then there was Jordon playing at the back. It’s brilliant to have so many of us young boys in the team.”
As he pines for his first start, Stanton looks across the city with a touch of envy as he sees some of his young counterparts at Hearts get such extensive first-team exposure that some observers are fearing they’ll suffer burnout. In an ideal world, this boyhood Hibby would like to see both Capital teams loaded with homegrown talent in the not-too-distant future.
“I played against most of these boys who are in the Hearts first team coming up through the ages,” he explained. “They’re good players and the games between us were always tight. There’s a rivalry between the two teams at any age but the older you get, the more important the game becomes.
“It’s good to have a rivalry right through from a young age up to the first team. All their boys are in the first team now and there’s a few of ours starting to get in now so it would be really good for the whole city if there’s a lot of young boys playing for both Edinburgh teams. People say the boys at Hearts might get burnt out but I’d imagine they will just be buzzing at being in the team every week.”