Stark opts for safety first by omitting young Hibs duo

Scotland Under-21 head coach Billy Stark leads training
Scotland Under-21 head coach Billy Stark leads training
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Hibs youngsters Sam Stanton and Danny Handling were told not to report for Scotland Under-21 duty after their club suffered relegation to the Championship.

Coach Billy Stark, below, called both players on Sunday evening and told them to stay home knowing they would be devastated after Hibs lost the SPFL play-off final on penalties to Hamilton.

Stark stressed he wanted to protect Stanton and Handling and ensure his squad’s morale was not affected by their presence. Scotland face the Netherlands in a European Under-21 Championship qualifier tomorrow night, which they realistically need to win. Stark felt the understandable despondency of the Hibs players could be detrimental.

“I saw how the play-off final had gone and I know the boys reasonably well. I knew how hurt they would be,” said Stark today. “Fans sometimes live their lives through their clubs and you can understand the frustration. Those two boys were absolutely distraught and humiliated and all those things you feel.

“When I spoke to them, I told them they are young boys and if they are to have a long career in the game then they will have plenty disappointments. I said they need to learn how to deal with them. It’s hard to imagine a bigger disappointment than that with a club like Hibs, from the position they were in, ending up going down.

“They can’t suddenly get out the car, put a big smile on their faces and spring up on their toes and come into the hotel. We’re trying to be positive about the game on Wednesday. I just felt that, for them, it would be the best thing, and also for us. Both these boys are available for the next campaign.”

Although play-offs were only re-introduced in Scotland this season, Stark used all his years of experience to ensure Stanton and Handling were let down gently. The 57-year-old explained the reaction he got during the phone conversation.

“They were comfortable with it,” he continued. “I couched it in a way that, although I was taking the decision, they were able to convey that they felt it was the right decision as well. I wasn’t looking to inflict further disappointment on them. It was really about protecting them a wee bit and also protecting us.

“Some of the boys stopped playing a couple of weeks ago, some were involved in cup finals and the new thing is the play-offs at the end of the season. We met up on Sunday while the play-off final was taking place and the Hibs boys were due to meet up with us on Sunday night.”

Stark acknowledged the magnitude of tomorrow night’s fixture at St Mirren Park. “We know that, if we’re realistic about qualifying, we need to win he last three games, but we only need to think about winning this game right now. It’s a tall order but I firmly believe we have the players to do that.

“The quality of the opposition is unquestionable but we have to be confident we can win, particularly at home.”