Big interview: Gareth Evans delighted to be overseeing Hibs' youth set-up
Gareth Evans didn't appreciate when he first signed for Hibs just how much the club's fans cherished those players they regarded as 'one of our own'.
And yet, he was surrounded by them, Eddie May, Gordon Hunter, Paul Kane and John Collins where his team-mates as he marked his arrival from Rotherham United with a goal on his debut, in a 2-1 win over Dundee.
Back then the 21-year-old striker was simply keen to get on with the next chapter in his career, little realising that three decades on he would find himself responsible for helping nurture future generations of youngsters hoping that, one day, they too might pull on a green-and-white jersey.
Recently appointed as head of youth, Evans is responsible for looking after more than 60 players between the ages of 13 through to 16, and overseeing the work of seven coaches through the four age levels.
As such he accepts he is unlikely to see the fruit of his labours for some time, quickly replying “when he plays for the first team” in response to the question as to when anyone can point to any particular youngster and say “he’s the one”.
Equally he recognises that today’s academy will always be benchmarked against those who have gone before: Ryan Porteous, Oli Shaw, Fraser Murray and, most recently, Jamie Gullan having pushed their way into the thoughts of head coach Neil Lennon.
However, all Hibs fans recall the “golden generation” of only a few years ago: Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Steven Whittaker, Garry O’Connor, Derek Riordan and Steven Fletcher, leading Evans to concede: “It was great it happened, but will it happen again? Probably not, but you never know. Manchester United, for example, will always have that class of ’92.
“I probably wasn’t aware of it at the time even though I had those guys as team-mates because I was young and new to Hibs, but once you see it, learn the values of the club and the history, there’s nothing better for Hibs supporters to see an Edinburgh boy from a Hibs family coming through.
“We want to see boys from Edinburgh go on and play for Hibs.”
Evans is back for a third spell at Easter Road, a place he understandably regards as home, having returned as reserve team coach in 2007 following spells as assistant manager at Alloa Athletic and then Brechin City alongside former team-mate Michael O’Neill.
Following the sacking of John Hughes, Evans, along with Alistair Stevenson, actually took charge of the first team, the pair boasting a 100 per cent record as their sole game at the helm ended in a 2-1 victory over Kilmarnock.
“I remember it well,” laughed Evans. “We were a goal down after a minute but then Chris Hogg scored two – he’d never done that in his life.”
However, having served under Collins, Mixu Paatelainen and Colin Calderwood, Evans was shown the door after four years as Pat Fenlon brought in his own staff which, he insists was “fair enough”.
Becoming the first-team coach at Livingston followed under Hughes, and Evans and Richie Burke were placed in caretaker charge after Yogi left for Hartlepool.
Evans then became Scotland women’s Under-19 national coach in June 2013, a job he held for four years before spending the past few months working with Hibs Under-15s while also producing match reports on future opponents for Lennon.
Admitting that he still “probably does” miss working at first-team level, Evans insists he enjoys coaching youngsters and he has a proven track record as such.
He said: “I was essentially working with the [Scotland] girls’ Under-19s but also with Scot Gemmill, with the boys, getting to the semi-final of the European Championships with the Under-17s in 2014 only to lose to Holland having beaten Germany and Switzerland on the way.
“With the girls we put programmes in place, set up an academy, training seven and eight times a week and all living at Heriot-Watt. They qualified for the last eight in Europe twice in four years, just missing out on the semis both times.
“But the biggest part is that 13 of those girls over the four-year period now play for the A squad and are going to next year’s World Cup finals. I see that as success.”
As such Evans clearly has plenty of experience to bring to his new role, revealing much is about striking a balance between the kids enjoying themselves but also becoming aware of the hard work and sacrifices which have to be made if they are to achieve their dream of becoming a professional football player. He said: “It’s hard for them, the training they do, three nights a week, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and a game at the weekend.
“Some will play up an age group, so they might have a game-and-a-half and then they have their school work and growing up.”
Recognising that the players at the ages he is working with tend to develop and mature at different, he added: “There could be a player in the 13s now who might be the next star but we haven’t seen it yet, although in a couple of years it may kick in.
“At the moment a few of the 13s are playing up at 14s and a few of the 15s are playing 18s, which is a massive jump.
“That’s success in itself shows that these boys can handle playing in an older age group. What we have to take into consideration is that there might be that footballer who isn’t as mature, can’t handle it in terms of their maturation but they might be just as good footballers.”
Having joined Coventry City as a 14-year-old, Evans admits he could never have envisaged the resources available to today’s youngster, with coaches using a multi-discipline approach, utilising sports science, strength and conditioning, medicine, nutrition and diet, video analysis and so on.
He said: “I understand what people say that you can’t tell a boy is going to be a footballer at seven or eight – and they are probably right – but you need to get them in because other clubs will get them in as well, there’s that competition.
“You are just hoping they increase their abilities and improve with the coaching they get and the environment they are in so that when they come into the academy at 13 they are away or what is around them, how to use it and how to make themselves better. We didn’t have that, but we have to embrace it and use it the best we can. But you still need that mental toughness, that’s a big part of going into the first-team environment which is hard to put into youngsters.”
While agreeing that parents can sometimes be a little “precious” about their own son, Evans sees them playing a vital part in their youngster’s development by helping them understand what’s needed for their boy to succeed.
Times may have changed, but Evans insisted the underpinning philosophy was simple.
“What we try to do is turn them into better football players and people if we can,” he said. “We always make them mindful of who they represent, Hibernian Football Club, to always be on their best behaviour, to always give their best. That’s what we expect.”