From ball boy to Hibs first teamer - the meteoric rise of Rory Whittaker
In-depth look at Rory Whittaker’s rise at Hibs with some brilliant quotes from the young gun
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When he started talking about his experience as an Easter Road ball boy, everyone present expected the sentence to end with reminisces about something a couple of years back. Months ago, certainly.
Imagine the shock, then, when Rory Whittaker – the youngest debutant in Hibs history, aged just 16 years and 44 days when he entered the fray on Saturday – added some quite ridiculous context to his meteoric rise through the ranks.
“Yeah, I was a ball boy here a few weeks ago – the Luzern game and then the Aston Villa game,” revealed the right back. “From being a ball boy a few weeks ago to making your debut is just mad. But that’s who I am. I’ll try to stay humble.
“If somebody tells me to be a ball boy for the first team or they ask me to do it again, I’m going to say yes. I’m a Hibs fan, I’d be getting to see the team play.”
With all due respect to the other youngsters perched around the touchline for home games at Easter Road, asking Whittaker to return to their ranks would seem like a waste of talent. On the basis of what he’s done in training and in 20 minutes on the park so far, he’s far more likely to spend the next few games nodding to his old mates as he warms up as a substitute. For starters.
The lad can be forgiven, though, for feeling as if the whole situation is a bit surreal. Especially given the company he’s keeping.
“David Gray was my hero,” said Whittaker of the current Hibs first-team coach and, of course, Scottish Cup-winning captain of lore. “And he’s been brilliant this week.
“Since I’ve gone full-time, he’s been a top, top guy, you know? Easy to talk to, a great role model. Paul Hanlon, Jimmy Jeggo, Lewis Stevenson, the experienced players have been great in training, helping me a lot.
“I played against Rangers for the 18s last week, the manager came to watch. Obviously I must have caught the eye – because I was in training with the first team a couple of days later. He told me that I was in training because I’d done well in the 18s game. But I didn’t know I would be involved here.
“It was Davie Gray who told me about training with the first team, he said: ‘You’re with us today.’ I was very nervous going in for my first session with the first team – but I absolutely loved it. The guys were so welcoming.
“I’ve trained this week with the first team, been surrounded by players I’ve grown up watching. I didn’t think about getting on, but I was always ready. When the manager told me to warm up, I thought: ‘This is my chance.’ I had to go on and show the fans what I’m about.
“On the pitch, I didn’t really feel any nerves. I was hungry to get stuck in and make an impact, which I thought I did – nearly scored!”
Ahead 2-0 but in need of some energy to help close out the game, Hibs boss Nick Montgomery had no hesitation in calling the youngster over for the most important shift of his career, to date. Keeping goal scorer Lewis Miller at right back, the gaffer asked Whittaker to go on and add some oomph on the wing. Which he duly did. Without being fully aware of his status as a record breaker.
“I didn’t find out until after the game,” he said of his place in the history books. “I think it was a few of the lads and the coaches who told me.
“When I was walking off to me, someone said to me: ‘You’re the youngest player ever to play for Hibs.’ It was a weird feeling because I was walking off the pitch, looking for my mum and dad. I kind of went quiet when I got told that.
“Then I walked into the changing room and all the players were cheering me. It was a great experience. A great day. My mum and dad were there watching, so it was some moment for them.”
Joking that he was planning only a quiet weekend before returning to training on Monday, Whittaker – all sincerity and humility – added: “If it’s training with the first team or under-18s, I’ll be ready to go.”
Expanding on the approach he’ll take when he returns to duty, he said: “I want more chances with the first team but I’ve got to prove it to the gaffer, keep going in training. If it is playing with the 18s, I’ve got to keep going.
“But this is the best feeling any young lad can feel, playing for the team you’ve supported all your life.”
The only thing that might have improved on the euphoria, of course, was taking the chance that fell his way – on his left foot – late in the game. Laughing as he recalled Dimitar Mitov’s point-blank save, he said: “I think I was away celebrating, actually! It was like slow motion, the ball fell to me on my left foot.
“I remember seeing through the goal, seeing all the Hibs supporters stand up. It was just a weird feeling. Unfortunately it didn’t go in – but it makes me hungrier to get more chances.
“That would have topped it off but I want to score goals for this club. I like to attack from right back, get assists and score goals. I’ll probably leave watching that back for a few days …”