Ben Stirling makes most of surprise call to Hibs trip
Up until a few days ago, Ben Stirling was looking at a Saturday night spent on the Cowdenbeath team bus heading back south from the League Two clash with Elgin City.
Instead the Hibs youngster found himself jetting home from the Easter Road outfit’s winter training camp in Portugal, a surprise call-up to Neil Lennon’s squad which spent a week in the Algarve.
Having been farmed out to the Blue Brazil on a development loan, the 19-year-old had his time at Central Park cut short, paving the way for him to join fellow teenagers Oli Shaw, Ryan Porteous, Fraser Murray and Kevin Dabrowski in heading for a bit of sunshine.
“It was a bit of a shock,” he confessed. “George [Craig, Hibs head of football operations] phoned me on Wednesday and I was delighted. I didn’t have a clue I’d be going but I couldn’t wait.”
As he boarded the flight bound for Faro, Stirling was only too aware of how much his journey home would differ to the day he’d have spent had he remained with Cowdenbeath, having made the trip to Borough Briggs for his very first appearance for the Fife side.
He said: “We reported about eight in the morning, got there around 12.30pm for our pre-match meal, played the game and were back at ten at night. It was a very long day.
“So it was a bit different to find myself on a plane heading for home instead. At least I was back before ten!”
No doubt Stirling spent a bit of those three hours in the air contemplating the previous few days, not least being handed his shirt complete with his squad number, 45, and, for the first time, with his name on the back as Lennon’s players played out a hastily arranged match against Dutch side Excelsior Rotterdam who were based nearby.
The midfielder said: “At Cowdenbeath and Berwick, where I was on loan last season, the shirts were numbered one to 11, so it was a special moment to be given a jersey with both a squad number and my name on the back.
“Playing against Excelsior was a real step up but I feel I handled it well. It was another challenge. I got the full 90 minutes and I really enjoyed it. I played centre mid first half then left-back in the second.”
Stirling got a further piece of the action, playing for the final 25 minutes as he replaced Darren McGregor as Hibs took on another Dutch side, Willem II on Friday. And while, like everyone else in the Hibs camp, he was disappointed to have lost 3-1 despite taking the lead through Simon Murray early in the second half, it was an experience he thoroughly enjoyed.
He said: “Dutch football has a different style, they like to get the ball down and play. That’s how I like to play.”
However, it was being around Lennon’s squad on an extended basis which Stirling really enjoyed. He said: “I’ve trained with the first team squad a few times. The first couple of sessions you hold back, but the gaffer is good telling you to relax and enjoy it and then you feel you are part of it.
“You watch players in your position, watch what they do learn off that and try to mirror what they do in training.
“They are a great bunch of lads who make you feel welcome and don’t leave you out. Being away for a week like that gives you a chance to bond with them, to hear what they have to say about different things.”
And although his time with Cowdenbeath ended on a disappointing note – his last game for them was at the end of October – Stirling believes both his spell in Fife and at Berwick can play a pivotal role in his push for a first-team place at Easter Road.
He said: “It’s very much different to the development football you are playing which is not really about the result, whereas with Cowdenbeath the win comes first and then the style. But it’s good, again different ways of playing and different experiences.”
Stirling scored in his second game for Cowdenbeath, his strike giving them the three points against Edinburgh City and what remains their only league win of the season, their defeat by Elgin at the weekend making it 19 games without a victory, a record which leaves them firmly rooted to the bottom of the table.
He said: “It was strange, at the start I was flying but then they started dropping down the league and it wasn’t working out for me. The last game I started was Berwick at the end of October and that was it.
“The boss, Billy Brown, left then the new manager [Gary Bollan] came in. It was the typical football story, that change of manager no matter what level you are playing at. If they like you they like you, if they don’t they don’t
“Billy was playing me in central midfield, my favourite position. But then there was a lot of games from the end of November and beginning of December so I didn’t really get a chance to show what I can do. As a result Eddie [May Hibs head of academy coaching] and George cut it short. Then, fortunately I got the call to go to Portugal and I hope I haven’t done myself any harm.
“Oli and Co are the standard bearers. I’m a wee bit jealous, but it just makes you want to work harder to get about the first team and hopefully it won’t be too long until that happens.
Now Stirling has his sights set on forcing his way into Lennon’s thoughts just as Shaw, Porteous and Fraser Murray have done.
Agreeing it is great to see youngsters coming through – arch-rivals Hearts getting plenty of plaudits at present for giving the likes of Harry Cochrane, Jamie Brandon and Anthony McDonald an opportunity – Stirling believes Hibs, who sit top of the SPFL development league, have just as good youth players, if not better.
However, as he pointed out, it’s about getting that chance and taking the opportunity, goalkeeper Dabrowski up against Israeli internationalist Ofir Marciano and Scott Bain and, when fit again, Ross Laidlaw, while hot-shot Shaw has had to force his way in alongside Anthony Stokes and Simon Murray while the arrival of Australian striker Jamie Maclaren will add further competition.
And in his own area, both he and Fraser Murray face the toughest test of all as they seek to get their noses in front of Scotland internationalist John McGinn, Dylan McGeouch and Marvin Bartley.
Stirling added: “Look at the first-team squad. It’s very strong and in midfield it’s going to be hard to put them out of the team, but you have to keep working hard, looking for that opening and then taking it.”