Scottish football is alive and kicking with a huge influx of young talent bringing a freshness and excitement to the Premiership even if fans the length and breadth of the country have long ago bequeathed the title once more to Celtic.
A glance at the teamsheets at any given match will reveal a clutch of youngsters on either side, some rapidly becoming household names despite being barely – if at all – out of their teens. And nowhere will it be more evident than at Easter Road on Friday night when Hibs face Dundee United, with no fewer than six of Billy Stark’s Scotland Under-21 squad ready to showcase their talents for a nationwide television audience.
In green and white will be Sam Stanton, the name on everyone’s lips down Easter Road way, and Danny Handling, while in the tangerine of United are likely to be John Souttar, only 17 but holding down his place as a centre-half in the top flight, Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong and Ryan Dow. Opponents in three days’ time but team-mates next week when the young Scots take on Hungary in a friendly at Tannadice.
Those six, though, represent only the tip of the iceberg at their respective clubs with Stanton and Handling set to be joined in Terry Butcher’s starting line-up by Jordon Forster and Alex Harris while Jason Cummings will be vying for a seat on the bench. And as far as United are concerned, Jackie McNamara’s ranks will include Andy Robertson, at 19 already promoted to Gordon Strachan’s squad for the trip to Poland, and another teenager Aidan Connolly.
It may, as many might say, be a sign of the times as Scottish clubs’ finances take a battering both from the current economic climate and the fall-out caused by the money worries which have hit the likes of Hearts, Rangers and Dunfermline hard, with Hibs and United not being alone in placing a heavier reliance on youth.
But, as far as Scott Robertson is concerned, that old football maxim of “if you’re good enough you’re old enough” also comes into play, the Hibs midfielder having seen life on both sides of Friday night’s divide, an experience which leaves him in no doubt that the kids who will strut their stuff in front of the cameras are in there on merit.
He said: “Ryan Gauld actually made his first appearance for United as I made my last, the final game of the 2011/12 season away to Motherwell. Ryan had been training with the first team since the January so we knew he was a very talented youngster and it’s come as no surprise he’s done so well in such a short space of time.
“John Souttar has done remarkably well, 17 and yet holding down his place as a central defender, a position which brings a lot of pressure but he’s taken to it no problem at all. But just look at young Jordon here at Hibs, his debut in a derby at Tynecastle and only a few games later a Scottish Cup final against Celtic.
“Alan Maybury said at the time he’d played his whole career and that was his first final and yet here was Jordon doing it as a kid. But I think if you look around the country clubs aren’t just blooding youngsters, they are relying on them just as we’ve relied on Sam in the past couple of weeks to get us a result.”
Robertson is adamant clubs can’t undervalue the contribution of coaches such as Stevie Campbell at United – his youth coach at Dundee as he started his career – and Hibs’ own James McDonaugh who has ensured the Easter Road conveyor belt of talent has continued to produce first-team candidates.
And the 28-year-old insisted he’s been impressed not only by the youngsters’ obvious talent but by the way they’ve coped during what has been an indifferent season for Hibs, one which also saw a change of manager mid-stream.
He said: “We haven’t really hit the heights which is a bit of a shame for the boys because they’ve not come into a team that’s been doing as well as we’d have hoped which has perhaps led to a couple of them going a bit unnoticed.
“But Sam’s certainly getting that now. I’ve been at the club for a year now and when I first came in I heard a lot of positive things about him. He was then injured and out for a while but he’s really made an impact now. Alex did that at the end of last season but had a major setback with injury, People forget he’s not had a full season yet but he’ll come again and, I am sure, have everyone sitting up taking notice.”
While Hibs and United have been enjoying an obvious return from their youngsters, the emergence of so much talent around the country has almost left Stark spoilt for choice, the Under-21 boss giving no fewer than five kids – Stanton and Souttar among them – their first call-up at this level.
Making the point that today youngsters are getting their chance rather than sitting on the bench as a “box-ticking exercise” to fulfil the old Under-21 rule, he said: “Rather than not getting on to the pitch they are in there on merit, playing good football and keeping their places which, hopefully, will improve the strength in depth of Scottish football.
“Hibs have served us well in the past with the likes of Paul Hanlon – I think the world of him – Callum Booth, David Wotherspoon and Lewis Stevenson who was in my first squad. We’ve been watching Stanton closely and the first thing you see is ability. We’ve been aware of him but since Terry came in Sam has taken things by the scruff of the neck and that more central role gives him the opportunity to be involved in the game.
“Danny’s been in a couple of squads already, he’s always impressed us with his technical ability.
“He’s not quite been able to become a regular goal-scorer in the first team for Hibs but that’s a big jump and I have no doubt that when he gets a long run of games he will get good opportunities. He’s got a good attitude and, like Sam, wants to work hard for the team.”
And Stark believes international recognition, not only for Stanton, Handling and their United counterparts, but the youngsters from other sides called into next week’s squad, will act as a two-way street in their footballing development.
He said: “Doing well for their clubs brings international recognition which should give the boys extra confidence, a new experience playing against the very best other countries have to offer at their age level, and that, in turn, benefits their clubs.
“The test for them is that when they pull on that jersey do they have the confidence to go out and perform?”