"He is getting better and better": Rapid rise of Jacob Blaney, a long-term replacement option for Ryan Porteous at Hibs
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But the impending departure of one home-grown talent also opens up an opportunity to promote another from within. Jacob Blaney, 18, is as close as it comes to fitting the bill over the longer term.
It’s been quite a year for the teenager from Coatbridge. He started 2022 as a regular in Gareth Evans’ under-18 team and has ended it as a Scotland under-19 international, with first team-football appearances and UEFA Youth League experience under his belt.
He’s been a big part of the success Hibs under-19s have had in Europe against FK Molde and Nantes and he recently returned from international duty with Scotland under-19s, facing Iceland and France in two of Scotland’s three 2023 UEFA European Under-19 Championship qualifiers under Billy Stark. That meant facing Bayern Munich wonderkid Mathys Tel at Somerset Park a couple of weeks ago. The France Under-19s forward scored twice in a 3-1 win for the visitors in Ayr. But the 17-year-old prospect has also scored three times in seven games in the Bundesliga this season. It’s all part of Blaney’s development.
“It’s great,” reflected the right-sided centre-back. “Playing European football, getting called up for my national team… it’s a dream. What you want to do as a footballer is play in the biggest game you can. It’s a very exciting time to be at the club because everyone wants to be playing in these games and getting their name out there.”
Blaney has been on the books at Hibs since he was 10, but this has been a year of significant progress. He was an unused substitute in five first-team matches before eventually making his debut from the bench on the last day of last season against St Johnstone at Easter Road. This season, he has experienced more first-team action, featuring in the 4-1 win over Bonnyrigg Rose in the Premier Sports Cup at New Dundas Park and in the pre-season friendly against Norwich City.
Having had a taste of first-team football and in reserve fixtures this season for the development team, he has a much better understanding of what it takes to compete physically in the men’s game. By all accounts, that’s probably the part of his game he needs to work on most. But Blaney believes he’s not far away from making the transition from under-18 prospect to someone who can be relied on to do a job at first-team level.
“I wouldn’t say the gap is massive,” Blaney explained. “The gap has been narrowed a lot since Steve Kean came into the job [as development manager]. We’re playing more men’s football in the reserve league cup and games like that. We’ve played against first-team footballers in reserve league and cup games and we have done well against them. It’s what we need to learn from.
“These boys we have been up against have played at the highest level of Scottish football. It’s all about adapting to different scenarios. Every player has different attributes and that’s what you need to learn. You need to adapt to every situation.”
A former Scottish FA’s performance school pupil at Braidhurst High in Motherwell, Blaney has adapted well so far when he has been put to the test. Kean has previously pointed out that defending in one-on-one situations is one of Blaney’s real strengths. Describing Blaney as a “cultured defender” who is very good at playing out from the back, much like Porteous, the academy chief is working hard to improve Blaney’s physicality and his more basic defending skills. Kean has been impressed by Blany’s rapid progress.
“Jacob is getting better and better,” explained Kean. “The good thing about the reserve league is that he is playing against men. When he has trained with the first team he has acquitted himself well. He sees the games well. He can pass through midfield. He’s a really cultured defender.
“When he has moved up and played against men in reserve games he is really asked to defend as a centre half. Facing first-team strikers who are maybe on the bench or coming back from injury – that’s been a good transition for him. We’ve never doubted the fact that he can play. He can step out and find a pass.
“I think it is the physicality he needs to work on. But the reserve league cup has been good for him. It’s what I’d call real football, when you are up against older, more physical players. He’s taken it on board and he is getting better.”
Much of the progress Blaney has been making can be attributed to Darren McGregor, who is making the transition from first-team squad player to coach. Kean believes pairing McGregor and Blaney as twin centre-backs in some games has been “invaluable” as a learning curve for the youngster.
“The best mentor we have for lads like Jacob is Darren,” explained Kean. “Darren is part of the first-team squad but making the transition to become a coach with the academy. Daz can pass on all his experience as a fellow centre-back.
“In pre-season Daz played some games beside Jacob, which was invaluable. Passing on everything that’s in Darren’s head to Jacob and coaching as he plays and passing on little things in game time can certainly help. That’s been superb for us.”
It would be asking too much too soon to expect Blaney to emerge as a direct replacement for Porteous, but the trajectory his career has taken this year suggests that the young defender has a bright future at Hibs.