James McDonaugh today stands in an unique position, the coach of two top-of-the-table teams as Hibs head both the SPFL Under-20 League and the East of Scotland’s First Division in what has been a marathon season for the Easter Road kids.
The youngsters have already racked up an astonishing 52 matches with plenty more games remaining with the EOS side also in the last 16 of one cup and the quarter finals of another, meaning they have a minimum of nine more fixtures and possibly as many as 14 still to play.
A crucial match against Celtic next Thursday and a showdown with Easthouses Lily at their East Mains training centre nine days later will go along way to deciding whether Hibs complete a glorious title. But, as delighted as he would be to see a remarkable season rewarded with a flash of silver, McDonaugh steadfastly refuses to budge from his mantra that producing more youngsters for Terry Butcher’s first-team squad – to follow in the footsteps of Alex Harris, Sam Stanton, Jordon Forster, Danny Handling and Jason Cummings who have all made that leap in the past 12 months – remains his over-riding concern.
Head of academy coaching McDonaugh said: “It would be nice to win something but just to be in the race with Celtic and Rangers for the SPFL title is some achievement given the resources they have. We actually started the season with just five players who fitted into the Under-20 bracket, the rest were Under-19s and Under-18s which means they are eligible to play again next season in the SPFL.”
While the race for the EOS First Division title is a straight fight between Hibs and Easthouses, the Under-20 championship is a three-way battle, the Capital club’s 2-0 win against Partick Thistle lifting them two points clear of second-placed Celtic and four in front of Rangers. The Glasgow sides, however, both have two games in hand although they have still to play each other again.
Hibs play Kilmarnock two days before they head west to face Celtic next week in what promises to be a crucial clash. The Edinburgh kids, though, do so having beaten Celtic in their last three encounters.
McDonaugh said: “Last season, we beat Celtic on the Tuesday night, played them again on the Thursday at Easter Road and won. Then Jordon Forster, who had played in each of those games, made his debut against Hearts at Tynecastle that weekend when Ross Caldwell scored the winner. What a week that was. Not too many teams beat Celtic four times in a row at any level, so if we do it then we’ll certainly deserve it.”
McDonaugh, however, believes his side need to win all five remaining Under-20 matches to clinch the title and believes the EOS First Division which they top by a point from Easthouses remains their best bet for glory.
Hibs have lost just twice in 25 matches over the two competitions, a run which stretches back to November, and McDonaugh believes operating in the two has brought benefits all round with Butcher able to use both Under-20 and EOS games to give first-team players a run-out when needed.
Midfielder Owain Tudur Jones, out for the past three months with a hamstring injury, has been the latest to do so, playing against Rangers and Partick Thistle in the past week, raising hopes he’ll be available for Monday’s Premiership match with Aberdeen while Kevin Thomson, famously, faced Hawick Royal Albert one Saturday and found himself in Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad on the Monday morning.
McDonaugh said: “It’s a luxury other clubs don’t have, sometimes if someone didn’t get a game one Tuesday he’d have to wait until the followng week to hopefully play.
“Now we are playing Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday which means if a youngster makes way for a first-team player coming down he doesn’t have long until his next game.
“The first-team players who have joined us have been first class. They’ve treated the game with the respect it deserves and their young team-mates likewise. And the boys look up to them, they listen and learn from the experience playing alongside them.”
McDonaugh admitted he’s been aware of the muttering among some sections of the Hibs support questioning the worth of Hibs £5 million state-of-the-art training centre at Ormiston, such talk irking him immensely.
A lifelong Hibs fan who recently took the decision to move his family from Broxburn to Tranent so he can virtually “live above the shop,” McDonaugh said: “Everyone wants to see a winning team on the pitch, that’s what it is all about but to hear that sort of thing is very annoying.
“East Mains is a tremendous facility. It’s used morning, noon and night. We make maximum use of it, there are double training sessions and sometimes we have to rein the boys in because they are in danger of doing too much at times.
“Anyone who wants to ask about how the youth players are doing. How the academy is working. How the youngsters are developing only need ask – my door is always open.”