Hibs academy chief Steve Kean speaks on development squad plans and how many under-18s are ready for Easter Road first team

Gareth Evans might do the bulk of the coaching but Steve Kean is always there, leaning on one end of the dugout, occasionally shouting instructions to one of Hibs’ Under-18 team.

Sunday, 1st May 2022, 12:00 pm

The team has a very good chance of winning the league title and has lost just three games in all competitions since the start of the season.

One of those defeats was a heartbreaking Scottish Youth Cup semi-final against Rangers, but the wee Hibees have been in impressive form otherwise.

Both league defeats have been narrow 1-0 losses and they have the best defence in the league by some distance, with just 16 goals conceded and 55 scored.

A handful of players have been involved in first-team squads – Jacob Blaney and Oscar MacIntyre as unused substitutes, while Josh O’Connor made his debut in the 3-1 defeat by Aberdeen in March. Goalkeeper Murray Johnson is regularly involved with the first-team goalkeepers and most of the squad have participated in first-team training at some point too.

Hectic programme

The season still has some way to go but Kean is impressed by what he has seen so far since taking the reins as Academy Director at Hibs.

"The under-18s have been fantastic this season. We're getting to that point where there aren't many games left, we're a few points behind Rangers but we've got some games in hand,” he told HibsTV.

The Hibs Under-18 team has enjoyed a broadly successful season so far - and it's not over yet. Picture: Maurice Dougan

"That's all well and good but we've still got to grind these results out. The programme is looking pretty hectic – Tuesday, Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, Friday is going to be a typical week running into the last few weeks of the season so squeezing those games out will be a big ask but they're very robust and they've had a fantastic season. Hopefully we can finish it in style."

First-team transition

But it’s not all about winning games and possibly the league, although that is an obvious benefit. It’s more about blooding the youngsters for eventual transition to the club’s first-team squad.

"It's great that they can win games and be near the top of the table but it's really about progressing into the training environment with the first team, which many of them have; can they then push themselves onto the bench – which a few of them have – and can they get international recognition, which some of them have.

Hibs Academy Director Steve Kean

"These are all key indicators that everything is going in the right direction for that group. The progress is there for everyone to see if you dig deep and see how many are performing in the first-team environment and at international level, as well as domestically.”

O’Connor debut

It was a proud moment for player, family, and staff when O’Connor made his first-team bow, 21 years after his dad Garry did likewise. Kean wants to see more youngsters taking the same step as the striker.

"It's always good for the fans when you see one of your own coming through and it's the same for the staff. When we see young guys coming through the Academy and almost showcasing themselves, even it's just for a short spell, on the pitch for the first team it gives everybody a lift,” Kean smiles.

Oscar MacIntyre, left, participates in Hibs first-team training at HTC

"But it also gives great confidence all the way through the Academy. The younger groups are seeing one of the senior Academy players bursting through onto the first-team scene.”

Development squad plans

Many of the current under-18 players will form the core group of the development squad, which has been revived and will undertake games from the start of next season. Discussions have been had with clubs in England including Brentford, Blackburn Rovers, and Huddersfield Town, and the Evening News understands other under-23 teams south of the Border could be lined up for fixtures that would test the Capital club’s development squad.

"The 2004s - the year most of the under-18s were born - is a very, very strong group this year. Those players plus some of our slightly older players – Tom Carter, Jack Brydon, Steven Bradley, Joao Balde, Runar Hauge – will be the real nucleus of the development team.

"That squad will be about 18, 20 players-strong, so a really good group and that will help us keep them in the building longer, coach them longer, and bridge the gap from where they are now and push them closer to the first team.”

Ready for first team?

Centre-back Jacob Blaney has been included in first-team squads this season

There were calls for some of the in-form under-18s to get a chance in the first team during patchy runs of form, and while it wouldn’t have worked this season, Kean sees the development squad as helping the youth teamers make that jump more easily in future.

"If we were to sit and ask how many of the under-18s right now, or in the next two or three weeks when the season finishes, are potential squad players for the first team, it’s maybe not as many as we would have hoped, simply because of their age.

"Their progress in the last number of months has been exceptional so if we can keep them for that extra year, can we make the numbers much more so they can supplement the first team? I think the answer would be yes.

"We would trust the process that we can coach them, we can deliver a games programme, we can push them and I think we can really make sure that there would be a high volume of them progressing to the first-team ranks - and that's the objective: keep them here and keep developing them for another 12 months.”