FOR someone described as a perfectionist by James McDonaugh, Hibs’ Head of Academy Coaching, it comes as little surprise that young Ross Caldwell is exasperated at his inability to establish himself in the first team so far.
Refreshingly, Caldwell, one of the most highly-regarded youngsters currently on Hibs’ books, is in no mood to blame manager Pat Fenlon or anyone else, for that matter, for the fact he went more than two months without a top-team appearance before returning to the fray as a late substitute in Monday night’s goalless SPL draw with Aberdeen.
Having been overtaken by under-20s team-mate and long-time friend Danny Handling in the battle to be the main young back-up to the two senior strikers, Eoin Doyle and Leigh Griffiths, Caldwell simply admits he didn’t do enough when given the opportunity to showcase himself as a regular from the subs’ bench in the first half of the season.
“I don’t feel I’ve done myself justice when I’ve been given a chance in the first team,” said the 19-year-old, whose last outing before Monday came as a late substitute in the win at St Mirren in mid-February. “I’m frustrated with myself for not doing well enough. Other boys have come in and done better than me so I just need to work on my all-round game.
“It’s been frustrating, but I’ve been giving my all in training every day and keeping my fitness and game sharpness up in the under-20s. The gaffer’s been great with me, telling me what I need to do and what I need to improve on, and I’ve obviously done something right to be back involved for the Aberdeen game. It’s been a while – ten or 11 weeks – so it was good to get some game time again.”
Despite his recent frustration, however, Caldwell hasn’t allowed his focus to waver. In the short term, he is eyeing a place in the squad for next month’s Scottish Cup final against Celtic; in the long term, he is intent on replacing Griffiths as Hibs’ No. 1 striker. He knows he still has plenty work to do to get where he wants to be, but he senses he’s getting there. It helps that, with over a dozen first-team outings to his name, he is no longer gripped by nerves when he steps out at Easter Road.
“The main thing I’ve got to focus on is making the step from youth team to first team because everything’s a lot quicker,” he said. “It really is a massive jump because in the first team you’re playing against experienced players who have played at a decent level down in England and stuff like that. It’s a lot harder than playing against boys of your own age in the under-20s.
“I don’t really feel too much pressure playing for the first team now but at the start of the season it was different. It was quite weird getting used to playing for the first team. It started off really intimidating going out in front of so many fans but now it just feels normal. The more you do it, the more comfortable you get. You get more experience each time you go on the pitch so you’re gradually getting more comfortable each time you go into the first team, which helps you express yourself a bit more.”
Being pushed out of the first-team plans, while under-20 colleagues such as Handling and Alex Harris started to force their way into contention, might have come as a bodyblow to some youngsters. However, Caldwell, an intense but driven character, was able to keep his setback in perspective as he set about getting back on track in McDonaugh’s under-20s.
“It’s not demoralising at all playing in the under-20s because it’s not like I’m dropping back down a level,” he said. “All the boys in the under-20s are the same age as me, so it’s not like I’m behind schedule or anything like that.
“Going in and out of the first team is just part of my development. There aren’t many boys from the 20s who have played in the first team as often as me, although Danny and Alex have made the step up and are now starting games – that’s the position I want to be in. It gives you encouragement seeing Danny and Alex in the first team because they’re both the same age as me. It shows that if you’re good enough, the gaffer will give you a chance.
“I was really happy for Danny. He did himself justice against Falkirk last week and got rewarded with a start against Aberdeen, so I was over the moon for him. That’s what I need to be doing, though. Because we’re both strikers from the same youth team, there’s a bit of friendly rivalry between us, but we’re friends at the end of the day. It would be a dream if we could both play up front together for Hibs one day.”
The support of McDonaugh, his coach from a young age, has been invaluable in helping retain a positive outlook.
“James has been really helpful to me,” he said. “He’ll do anything for you and it’s good to have someone like that who can help you through. He gives me lots of confidence and lots of little comments to try and improve my game.”
With Doyle and Griffiths poised to head for England in the summer, Caldwell, who has another year on his contract at Easter Road, senses opportunity knocking. Having been namechecked by Fenlon as one of the youngsters he’d like to offer more game time over the next few weeks, the striker knows he needs to start seizing his chance.
“I just want to take part as much as I can and hopefully somehow play my way into the cup final squad,” he said. “That’s everybody’s goal. If Eoin and Leigh both leave over the summer it could open a door for me. We don’t know who the gaffer’s going to bring in, but come pre-season I’ll just need to try and impress him and hopefully become first-choice striker.”