Not so long ago it was a case of “Alex who?” Now the name of Alex Harris is on the tip of the tongues of most Hibs supporters even although the 18-year-old has yet to start a match for the Easter Road club.
Having been rationed to a brief glimpse of the young midfielder in action – a late substitute in the 3-0 win against Dundee at the beginning of October – Harris has enjoyed much greater exposure in recent weeks, stepping from the bench in each of Hibs’ last four matches.
And the fans have enjoyed what they’ve seen, the youngster catching the eye in each of those appearances as he establishes himself in boss Pat Fenlon’s squad and with his eyes now firmly fixed on earning a place in the starting line-up.
Today Harris admitted that as games became increasingly important to Hibs’ hopes of a top six finish and the thought of a second successive William Hill Scottish Cup final ever closer, he’d begun to feel those two minutes he’d enjoyed against Dundee might well prove to be “it” for the season as far as he was concerned.
Fenlon, though, has shown his faith in the former Edinburgh Academy pupil’s talent, pitching him into the action in the SPL clash with Kilmarnock despite Hibs being a goal down, giving him his first taste of Cup action against the Ayrshire outfit the following week, a derby day debut as he came on for Matt Done and then an entirely different experience as he suffered defeat for the first time at Fir Park.
Harris’ last three appearances have been caught live on television, offering nationwide audiences a look at his talents with his performances in each prompting favourable comments from seasoned commentators and former players, compliments he’s delighted to hear while at the same time insisting his head won’t be turned by such high praise.
The journey to Hibs’ East Mains training centre is still made each day in the company of his under-20 team-mates on the minibus which ferries the club’s youngsters from Easter Road to the outskirts of Tranent, Harris arriving and departing from the ground to his home in Murrayfield by bus.
Increasingly, though, the cloak of anonymity in which he was shrouded only a few months ago is lifting. He said: “Some of the fans might not have known of me but I’m hoping to catch their eye and give them a glimpse of me, and hopefully they’ll be cheering me on so I can perform well for them in the future.
“A couple of my friends have told me supporters have been saying good things about me which is good to hear. They are the most important people at any club and I’m glad to hear they are on my side.”
Harris can empathise with the supporters having stood among them only a few years ago, revelling in the play of Easter Road’s “golden generation” of home-grown stars such as Kevin Thomson, Scott Brown, Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor, Steven Whittaker and Steven Fletcher.
The return of Thomson on a short-term deal has, of course, evoked memories of those days and re-ignited the debate among those who, in overlooking the fact that first team players Lewis Stevenson, Paul Hanlon and David Wotherspoon were all reared by the club, question the current effectiveness of the club’s youth system.
Harris, though, insists the future is promising. Pointing out that Ross Caldwell and Danny Handling have also enjoyed first team football this season while the likes of Bradley Donaldson, Jordon Forster and Dean Horribine have all taken a seat on the bench, he said: “I am just one of the club’s young players.
“There are plenty more in the pipeline. We have a strong team at under-20 level and I am sure the fans will be happy to know that, hopefully, we’ll all progress and in the future become team-mates in the first team rather than the under-20s.”
Despite seeming to have leapfrogged Caldwell and Handling in recent weeks, although the pair have also regularly been among the substitutes, Harris revealed he’s well aware it’s manager Fenlon’s decision as to who plays and when, the Irishman having made it clear he sees his job, at least as far as the youngsters are concerned, to judge when is best to expose them to the rigours and demands of first team football.
The youngster said: “It’s just the way things are. Between October and playing in that game against Killie at the end of last month they were the ones getting a bit of a chance. I was frustrated then and I’m sure they’ll be feeling the same way at the moment. But like me they feel they have plenty to show, it’s a case of continuing to work hard in training every day and being ready if called upon.”
That was the approach Harris adopted in those four months between first team appearances, his chances seemingly reduced by the arrival during the January transfer window of Done, adding to the competition for that berth on the left flank which was then occupied by Paul Cairney. He said: “To be honest, it made me work all the harder although as time wore on the games were becoming more difficult and more important so I felt my chances might be a bit more limited.
“I’d been delighted at the start of the season just to be playing under-20 football and I was starting to think that would be me until next season.”
Fenlon, though, had other ideas, surprising many by thrusting Harris into the action as Hibs trailed Kilmarnock 1-0 in an SPL match at the end of January rather than, say, striker Eoin Doyle. Harris said: “It definitely shows the boss trusts me although I was a bit surprised at the time. He just told me I’d been doing well in training and to just show what I could do.
“The next week it was Killie again but this time at Rugby Park in the Cup and although I only got a couple of minutes, it was a great experience, my first away match and it was terrific with so many Hibs fans down there. I was a bit nervous at the derby but it was a fantastic feeling to get the chance to play in one having watched so many down the years.
“Motherwell wasn’t a great result obviously but I felt I might have scored late on. Darren Randolph pulled off a good save but I have scored a few in the under-20s and that’s something I’d like to bring with me into the first team.”
Training daily with Thomson, Harris insisted, can only help him progress. He said: “I used to go along with some mates to watch Kevin, Scott Brown and so on playing for Hibs. We always went to the old East Terracing, it was a bit boisterous but also great fun. I’ll get a bit stick from the boys in the dressingroom for this, but Kevin was probably my favourite player of that time.
“I think seeing so many of those players come through the youth system here made me strive all the harder to be, hopefully, as good as them. I never thought for a minute when I was watching him play for Hibs that one day I’d be playing in the same team as him. Kevin shows his experience and ability in training every day, working alongside him and listening to his advice can only help us all.”