Garry O'Connor sees shades of himself in Hibs kids as former Easter Road striker makes senior players claim
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Now 39, the former striker elbowed his way into the Easter Road senior squad under Alex McLeish as an 18-year-old, making his debut as a substitute in a 2-0 victory over Dundee at Dens Parkin April 2001. There was a loan spell in the Second Division before he earned his SPL credentials during the 2001/02 campaign with nine goals in 19 games.
O’Connor has maintained his links with Hibs thanks to son Josh being a key member of the club’s youth team and hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps at the club they both love – although the younger O’Connor is a very different player to his dad.
Josh has already checked off making his senior debut – as a late substitute in a 3-1 defeat by Aberdeen last season under Shaun Maloney – and has continued his impressive form for the club’s under-19s in the UEFA Youth League, scoring in the victory over Nantes in France that progressed the Capital club to a mouthwatering play-off tie against Borussia Dortmund in February. O’Connor senior is a familiar figure on the sidelines when Josh plays and the pair teamed up on the pitch during last month’s Hanlon Stevenson Foundation charity match at Easter Road. He sees serious potential in the talented crop of youngsters that includes the likes of Murray Aiken, Jacob Blaney, and Oscar MacIntyre, who have all made their senior competitive debuts for Hibs, and reckons there are shades of him and a former strike partner in green and white.
"I've watched Josh's team, the 2004s, since they were about 13 or 14. I've watched them grow up. The Under-19s have got a great bond as a team: if one player drops out and another comes in, they fit right in. They know each other's game like myself and Derek Riordan knew each other's game, inside out,” O’Connor says.
With video analysis having come on leaps and bounds since O’Connor was a youngster, he enjoys being able to watch every moment of every game and training session and scrutinise his son’s performance, while also appreciating the talent on show from the team as a whole. O’Connor was one of several Hibs kids to come through from the club’s academy and reels off his team-mates – ‘you had Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Tam McManus, Deek [Derek Riordan], Steven Whittaker, me, you could go on’ – who joined him in the Easter Road first team. Fans still recall the conveyor belt of talent in the early 2000s even today.
"You can watch every training session, you can watch every game, and you can analyse it. I look at all that, and I look at all the statistics, and I think there is definitely potential in that squad,” he explains.
The former Easter Road striker believes Hibs’ involvement in the Youth League, which saw them eliminate Molde of Norway before seeing off Nantes to set up a one-off tie against the Germans, has been both a blessing and a curse for the talented crop of youngsters. While manager Lee Johnson has repeatedly voiced his desire to bring through youngsters, O’Connor admits to having concerns that the youngsters may not be getting a chance to test themselves with loan spells similar to the one he enjoyed during his formative years due to their European exploits. Even the 1875 Invitational, which was presented as an opportunity for the club’s second-string players to experience matches against under-23 teams from England looks to have been put on hold for the foreseeable future to avoid overloading the players, some of whom are still playing regular under-16 or under-18 football and turning out for Hibs in the SPFL Reserve League and Reserve Cup.
"Part of the problem is that the under-19s are still in the Youth League and that prevents them from going out on loan – although they are playing against stronger teams in Europe,” he continues. “They are playing against men, and when they are playing against these men they are beating them, so that is good for them.”
O’Connor recalls his own loan spell with Peterhead and how it helped him force his way into the Hibs first-team reckoning but believes there needs to be a greater connection between the senior pros and the up-and-coming kids at East Mains. While the youth players are regularly called up to train with the first team, O’Connor recalls the benefit he felt from doing extra with the senior strikers as he was on the cusp of the squad.
"I went on loan to Peterhead when I was 16 or 17, and it was quite successful,” he recalls. “When I was that age I was always the first one called over to train with the first team because I was always big and strong – big Yogi [John Hughes] and Shaun Dennis wouldn't ever let me past; they used to snap me from behind – and I have still got the scars on my leg to prove it. But when I was coming through I had Mixu Paatelainen, I had Dirk Lehmann, and I had Craig Brewster all staying behind in training with me and telling me how I could go in behind, or how to hold the ball up; or how I could best time my runs in order to stay onside. I don't think there's enough of that in football now – but the game has changed and it's changing all the time."