For those who care about the development of homegrown players, the prospect of eight young Scots starting a high-stakes match between Rangers and Hibs this Sunday is sure to be an encouraging one.
At various points in the not-so-distant past, these two clubs have relied heavily on experienced campaigners and foreign imports. However, the two Championship title rivals have at their core a batch of exciting Scottish talents, all aged 23 or under.
Rangers, the hosts, are likely to start with Barrie McKay, 20, Jason Holt, 22, and the 23-year-old pair of Danny Wilson and Andy Halliday. For Hibs, Liam Henderson, 19, Fraser Fyvie, 22, and the 20-year-old pair of Jason Cummings and John McGinn are strong contenders for a starting berth. All eight were nurtured in Scotland and Billy Stark, the former Scotland Under-19 and Under-21 coach, has monitored them all from a young age.
“It’s terrific to see big clubs like Hibs and Rangers using young Scottish boys with ability. I’ve been keeping an eye on all these boys through the age-groups so I’m delighted to see them all playing at a relatively high-profile level,” he told the Evening News. “If you want to make it at clubs like Rangers and Hibs you need to be in a hurry to show people what you can do and these boys certainly fall into that category.”
Halliday, the oldest of this eightsome and a former Livingston youth, has hit the ground running in Rangers’ engine room after a fruitful five-year stint in England. “I didn’t have Andy in my squads but I was keeping an eye on him coming through the ranks at Livingston and then I went to see him a few times for Middlesbrough Under-21s,” explained Stark.
“He did okay but he was up against the likes of Stuart Armstrong for a place in the squad and he wasn’t any better than him and we didn’t have many injuries that allow you to bring somebody in like that. He always had talent but he was never outstanding when I saw him. He tended to play off a wide position when I saw him but he’s doing well for Rangers more centrally now.”
Holt has slotted straight into the Rangers team this season since joining from Hearts, where he found himself a bit-part player last season despite his early promise.
“I’ve got a lot of time for wee Holty,” said Stark. “I had him in the Under-19s and the Under-21s and he was a very consistent player for us. I remember him scoring a great goal for us in the European Championships in Slovenia.
“Everyone at Hearts, certainly the ones I was speaking to at the time, thought really highly of him. These smaller boys have to find that bit extra but Holty finds that because he’s so industrious and technically very good. Even though he’s not the biggest or the strongest, his movement makes up for that. He scored last weekend and he got a high-profile goal for Hearts against Rangers last season but he has the ability to do more in that department, depending how he’s used.”
The most established player is Danny Wilson, the former Hearts and Liverpool centre-back who returned to Ibrox this summer. “Danny came through every age level for Scotland and I had him at Under-21,” said Stark. “He made a big decision to go to Liverpool at a very young age even though many felt he should have stayed and got 100 first-team games under his belt at Rangers first. He’s a very confident boy, though, and that’s why he was able to get back on track after the setback at Liverpool. Hearts was a great platform for him to do that and I don’t think it would have been the worst thing in the world if he was still there this season.
“He’s got a chance of going back to England in the future. He’s the type of centre-back everyone’s looking for. He’s got an elegance about him, he’s left-footed, confident on the ball and has a good range of passing. Sometimes with those types, the defensive side suffers a bit, but he’s tightened up that part of his game. His levels of concentration and all the boring parts that make up a good centre-back are getting better all the time.”
Winger McKay has managed to force his way into the Rangers side under Mark Warburton after being farmed out to Morton and Raith Rovers in recent seasons.
“Barrie’s had an up-and-down time of it so far,” noted Stark. “He was a typical young winger in that, you knew he had ability, but sometimes you’d see him and he wouldn’t do anything at all. You could see that he had a real change of pace and lovely balance, but he maybe lacked that desire to go and influence matches. Now Mark Warburton seems to be giving him his chance. I can see why because, on his day, he can penetrate, beat a player and deliver a cross. Those players are worth their weight in gold if the team can make the best use of them.”
Stark is particularly impressed with Hibs’ trio of young midfielders. Fyvie, the former Aberdeen and Wigan player, has been on his radar for some time. “I first saw Fraser at Stark’s Park captaining the Under-15s and he was a really mature boy for his age,” said Stark. “He had a strong appearance and dominated games back then. He was another one who went to England and it didn’t really work out but, like Danny Wilson, he’s got a real confidence in himself.
“When he first joined Hibs, I thought that was the perfect club for him to get back on track. He’ll take the ball in any circumstances and be confident in keeping it. He’s not going to be able to do what Scott Allan did for Hibs. Scott’s very dynamic and explosive with the ability to see passes and play disguised passes and all that, whereas Fraser’s more workmanlike, better defensively and keeps things ticking over. He’s improved in terms of passing the ball forward and he’s a good all-round midfielder.”
Stark believes Hibs have pulled off a masterstroke in luring McGinn from St Mirren. “I had John latterly at Under-21s but I saw a lot of him with Ricky Sbragia’s Under-19s,” he said. “That’s a real top signing for Hibs. I’m surprised they were able to get him. He’s a strong, mobile, left-footed player. He’s got some faults in terms of overdoing it at times but he’s a real powerhouse who can get box to box. He’s not the best finisher in the world but he should be getting half a dozen a season the way he plays. He’s got a bit of everything. He’s a real honest boy who’ll work back for the team and do his defensive duties but he’s also got the appetite and energy to get forward. There’s not that many of those forceful midfielders about.”
Henderson is expected to bring a similar level of energy to Hibs’ midfield after joining on a season-long loan. “It was an astute piece of business by Hibs to get him at the stage he’s at because he’s hungry to prove himself,” said Stark. “Celtic obviously see him as someone who can develop into a first-team player for them and I can certainly see why they gave him a new contract. He’s another confident boy and he’s a good dead-ball striker. He’s played at the bottom of the diamond and at the top, he’s quite versatile.
“It would frustrate me a little bit when I saw him dropping deep to take the ball from the centre-backs because he’s got the ability to hurt teams up the pitch. He was out at Rosenborg last season and he handled that well, so that bodes well because they’re a high-profile club.”
Stark was close to calling Cummings into his squad before he vacated the role, and is excited by the Hibs forward’s poacher’s instinct. “I watched Jason closely,” he explained. “He was a late developer and he certainly seems confident, which is always a good sign in a goal-scorer. He’s not blessed with a fantastic touch or anything like that but he’s busy and he always wants to score, which is something you don’t see in every striker.
“He’s an instinctive finisher and so far he’s progressed well up the levels. I would expect him to be Hibs’ top scorer again this season.”