Tony Mowbray was long gone before Hibs’ £5million training centre opened and the final phase of redeveloping Easter Road into the 20,400 all-seated stadium it is today.
But as the former Hibs boss returns to the east end of Edinburgh tomorrow, bringing his Blackburn Rovers north for Paul Hanlon’s testimonial match, few would begrudge him the thought that the “golden generation” of budding talent he helped nurture will live on in the bricks and mortar of those buildings.
Mowbray frequently insisted that if he was to be given £1million as manager of Hibs he’d rather have it invested in a centre such as East Mains than flesh and blood, that at a time when, as Steven Whittaker recalls, training took place at whatever public park might be available.
Whittaker, along with the likes of Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor, Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson and Steven Fletcher, were the home-grown nucleus of the team Mowbray forged, a bunch of young lads who feared little if anything and took the SPL as it was then called by the scruff of the neck.
Inevitably, all were to move on, in Whittaker’s case to Rangers, but in return Hibs exacted, with the exception of Riordan, the maximum value from each of them, an amount heading well north of £10million.
“I remember Tony as a youth coach from Ipswich Town and this was his first job,” recalled Whittaker. “He had a lot of young, talented boys and it all sort of merged together nicely.
“He brought us on leaps and bounds. It was massive for the younger lads at that time and we went on to play some great football under him, learn the game and it stood us in good stead for our careers.
“It was just a group of talented boys that came through at the same time and managed to break into the first-team, achieve good careers, including full internationals.
“Why it all happened at that time we’ll never know, but it was great to work under Tony and be part of that. It was a great time. You came to work as a young lad, get close with the boys you’ve come through the youth team with - I’m still in touch with some of them 16 years later.”
Recollection of those heady days provokes the inevitable question, one which has sparked many a debate among Hibs fans in the intervening years. What if? Just what might that young bunch of boys achieved in green-and-white shirts had they stuck together for just a little bit longer?
“Who knows?” is the simple reply from Whittaker, newly turned 34. “We wouldn’t have got that experience at playing down south, playing for the Old Firm, playing in the Premier League.
“Those experiences make you the player you are, so it’s hard to say what would have happened. We had the talent to go and progress our careers and took that opportunity.”
The talent of Whittaker and his peers was enough to overcome the more primitive training facilities they were afforded, the former Scotland international happy that today’s young Hibs hopefuls have everything they didn’t.
He said: “The club earned a lot of money from the players and have managed to build a new stadium and training ground partly through those sales. That puts the club in a much better place and are in a great position to develop players they scout and bring in.
“We have a great basis to go on. We have everything you need to build and progress. When I was a young boy we all used to pile into the minibus to a field somewhere to train so to come to the training centre every day and have the facilities we have now is fantastic.”
Hanlon is one of those players to have benefited from those who have gone before, the central defender just a kid but highly thought of in Whittaker’s first spell at Hibs.
Whittaker said: “Paul was in training with the first team and was obviously well thought of. I remember him as a left-back, now he has progressed into a great centre-back.”
Whittaker admitted he was a little surprised to find both Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson, the recipient of a testimonial last year, still at Easter Road on his return to the club, but he has nothing but admiration for their decisions to stay put.
He said: “Sometimes it’s just the perfect fit. They obviously love it, coming in every day to train and then play for the club. Everyone chooses their own paths, but they have done great to play at a club like this for that length of time. They’ve been great servants to the club, they’ve been through highs and lows but to win the Scottish Cup a couple of years ago was fantastic for them.”
As always, summer brings all sorts of transfer speculation, with Dylan McGeouch having departed for Sunderland and his fellow midfielder John McGinn a target for Celtic, but Whittaker believes the success of that pair and others have enjoyed at Hibs can only help the Capital club attract fresh talent such as McGinn’s former St Mirren team-mate Stevie Mallan, who has become Neil Lennon’s latest signing. Whittaker added: “It’s a good club to come and show your abilities.”