Kevin Dabrowski reflects on dream Hibs debut as goalkeeper admits psychological battle over lack of gametime
Football clubs often sign talented young players who never get within a mile of the first team.
It is the nature of the game. Some youngsters eventually get their chance but many move on without having made a first-team appearance.
Kevin Dabrowski has always been determined that he wouldn’t become another lost statistic.
The 23-year-old signed in the January of 2017, joining Hibs' Under-20s, before making his move from Lech Poznan’s youth system in the summer.
A little over five years to the day, the Polish goalkeeper finally made his competitive debut, thrown in against Hearts in an Edinburgh derby following injury to Matt Macey.
Previously his only first-team experience had been loan spells at Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton, although he faced Arsenal in pre-season and saved a penalty from Nicolas Pepe.
Speaking afterwards the shot-stopper struggled to explain just how much the moment meant to him.
"I am very happy with my performance. I am delighted, because I have had to wait quite a long time to get this chance.
"I am very emotional. I have been at Hibs for more than five years. From the time I had the chance to be on the pitch for the very first time when I was 18, I said to myself that this is the perfect club for me to one day become a first-team player.
"I am happy that it has eventually happened and I am now a first-team player but it was not easy. I have been sent out on loan a couple of times, to Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton and I did a really good job.
“That gave me a very good argument for playing for the first team because I felt I did everything that I was asked to do. But, before now I still hadn't had the chance.”
Dabrowski has been as close to the action as possible, having been the back-up goalkeeper for Hibs on more than 70 occasions. While he is aware that life as the second-choice goalie can often mean a regular seat on the bench, he admitted that it was mentally difficult to juggle his desire to play with his love for the club.
"It was a bit frustrating because I have been on the bench for 50, maybe 60 games (76 in total) and not been used.
"That was really difficult for me and I had to fight with myself mentally, because many people would have wanted to leave but I am just in love with Hibs.
"The club is my second home, and I sacrificed everything to be here and the way I have been treated as well by the fans, I just wanted to thank them and, one day, show them on the pitch that they have given me the energy to train every day and I am happy that I have had that chance and that I was ready for it.”
Making your first-team debut at the club where you’ve grown up is a special moment regardless of the opposition but it being Hearts made it extra special for the Poznan-born number one.
"It just couldn't get any better,” Dabrowski agreed.
"When I found out that I was going to make my debut against Hearts, at home, it was just amazing. My feelings were all mixed up. I was excited, emotional, and I was nervous. But I am happy that I know how to handle those emotions and can use that on the pitch to play as well as possible.”
Hibs boss Shaun Maloney said afterwards that Dabrowski had had around six to seven hours warning that he would be making his debut. That’s not a huge amount of time to prepare for an Edinburgh derby…
"No, not much. But everyone who knows me knows what good potential I have and what I can do to stop shots.
"I feel so comfortable with all kinds of saves and I showed that at Cowdenbeath and at Dumbarton.
"In so many games I was the busiest goalkeeper but I kept some clean sheets so it was the best experience for me. I was just disappointed that people still couldn't see what I was capable of and give me that chance.
"But I just said to myself, ‘you have done everything you can and one day it will be enough’ and i just trained as hard as I could every day and I knew that one day my chance would come.”
There was one heart-in-mouth moment late on when Dabrowski was forced to jump on a miscued passback from Rocky Bushiri, with Lewis Stevenson blocking the resulting indirect free kick. ‘Keeper and defender embraced afterwards and Dabrowski explained that the cacophony of noise inside the stadium had played a part.
"I just instantly went for it. I had to react quickly because it was a bad passback. I understand Rocky tried to pass to me but he didn’t hear me screaming ‘keeper’s’ because it was the derby and it was so loud.
"It is chaos out there. Nobody can hear anyone. I shouted but because of the noise we couldn’t hear each other, so I understand Rocky not being able to hear me. The most important thing is that we avoided losing a goal and I am happy that we managed to keep a clean sheet.”
Dabrowski faced Hearts during his loan spell at Cowdenbeath as the two teams met in the League Cup group stages. The Tynecastle side emerged victorious but the on-loan Hibee impressed for the Blue Brazil and elicited praise from then Hearts boss Craig Levein.
Recalling that match Dabrowski said: “I played against them and I was very busy in that game. It was the busiest game of my life so far but, I have to say, I have played Hearts twice now and twice I have got man of the match, so I think that’s quite good.”