Exclusive: Hibs youngster Josh Campbell on cementing a first-team place and 'proving his point' against Rangers
The academy graduate’s only three previous starts in green and white were Betfred Cup ties against Alloa and Stirling Albion during Paul Heckingbottom’s reign more than two years ago and this season’s away trip to Andorra part-timers Santa Coloma in a low-key Europa Conference League qualifier back in July.
So walking out at the national stadium in front of 45,000 for Sunday’s Premier Sports Cup semi-final against Rangers was the biggest moment in the 21-year-old midfielder’s young career.
It could potentially have been a lamb-to-the-slaughter experience. After all, he was lining up in an out-of-form Hibs XI supposedly rusty after not having played for three weeks against the in-form Premiership champions out to impress their new manager.
Looking on from his seat in the stand, however, Giovanni van Bronckhorst must have thought the star-studded midfield he had inherited was behind outfought and outfoxed by a seasoned pro.
The new Rangers manager is unlikely to have known anything about Campbell beforehand given the paucity of first-team appearances the youngster has made, but he will certainly know all about him now.
“There’s no better stage to do it, so I think I’ve proved my point,” Campbell told the Edinburgh Evening News. “It’s just all about keeping my head down and working away and hopefully I can keep playing.”
He more than held his own at the tip of a Hibs midfield anchored by Joe Newell and Jake Doyle-Hayes, the trio hassling and harrying to prevent Rangers from getting into their stride and being inventive enough with the ball to cause problems going forward.
“The plan was just to go and press them high and put them under pressure,” Campbell explained. “We executed that quite well as a front three. Jake and Joe did that in midfield as well. That allowed Boyley to get chances and he took them very well.”
Jack Ross had handed Campbell a start after witnessing the impact he had made as a half-time substitute in the Premiership defeat by Celtic at Easter Road three weeks earlier.
Hibs trailed 3-0 at the break in that game and had barely laid a glove on Celtic, but Campbell’s energy in the second half got them up the pitch and was a significant contributory factor in a much-improved second-half performance.
“Josh just needs to develop that consistency in everything he does and have that strength and mindset that he backs his ability,” Ross said after that game. “I thought he was really good in the second half. I just asked him to go and do what he’s good at.
“He brings an energy but he also brings qualities – he's a threat in the final third, he showed that with the number of goals he got for Edinburgh City during his loan spell last season.
"I couldn’t have asked any more from him in that regard. He helped us be much better in the second half so in terms of him doing as much as he could to try and play his way into the team, he did that.”
Campbell was given a heads up by assistant coach John Potter early last week that he would be starting against Rangers and made sure he was ready.
He explained: “I got a phone call from Pottsy at the start of the week and he was saying ‘get yourself prepared because you’ll be playing’. So I just got myself prepared for the game. I kept it to myself. I told my family, but that was it. When the gaffer read out the team in the hotel and that’s when everyone else knew.
“To be given the nod to start, I was buzzing. To get the result we did and to celebrate in front of the fans, it was brilliant.”
When he was on loan at Edinburgh City last season, Campbell walked out at the national stadium in front of nobody for a League 2 fixture against Queen’s Park. He scored a special goal in that match. But it couldn’t compete with the special feeling the boyhood Hibs fan experienced when the final whistle sounded at a raucous Hampden on Sunday.
“I said to a few of the boys that about a year ago I was at Hampden walking out with Edinburgh City to play Queen’s Park and there were no fans. What a difference. The noise, the atmosphere, everything. Even though there were more Rangers fans than Hibs fans, ours were definitely louder. They were brilliant.”
Campbell has been a Hibs fan for life and a player for a long time. He played a key part in the double-winning 2018 development squad and gained experience on loan with Airdrieonians in 2018/19, Arbroath in 2019/20 and Edinburgh City last season.
Now part of the first-team squad, his current contract is due to expire next summer, making this season a make-or break campaign.
After being thrown in at the deep end against both halves of the Old Firm and proving in 45 minutes against Celtic at Easter Road and 90 against Rangers at Hampden that he can make a difference at that level, Campbell knows he can’t settle for that. He now needs to kick on.
A congested fixture list ahead, starting with tonight’s trip to Ross County, means there will be plenty of opportunities over the coming weeks for him to cement his place in the team.
“That’s the goal, to hold that position down,” he confirmed. “The gaffer has always told me to use my energy. I did that against Rangers. From the first minute to the last I just gave everything I had.”