How Hibs chief plans to fend off interest in youngsters as English clubs circle
The dust had barely settled before the next clutch of teams began queueing up. But they weren’t here for this season’s breakout star Josh Doig, or the ever-improving Ryan Porteous, or the prolific Kevin Nisbet. They had eyes on the next generation of talent; players – boys, even – in their mid-teens, rather than the household names lining up in green and white every Saturday. Murray Johnson; the promising goalkeeper who just turned 16 last November. Ethan Laidlaw, a highly-rated attacker who only signed his first professional deal a little over two months ago.
New regulations in place as a result of Brexit mean English clubs could be sending scouts to more and more games north of the Border, and Hibs sporting director Graeme Mathie believes the club has to brace itself for an influx of interest.
"Scotland will now become a far more popular hunting ground for English clubs, because the Brexit regulations mean they can’t sign players outwith the UK under the age of 18, and I think that's something that we as a club need to understand and plan for,” he told the Evening News in an exclusive interview.
"I've had really blunt conversations with a lot of people who have phoned us [about our young players].”
Laidlaw has twice made the bench for the first team while Johnson regularly trains with the senior goalkeepers at the Hibernian Training Centre. The Easter Road staff have high hopes for both players as well as a number of their colleagues and Mathie believes being able to map out a pathway to the first team can help Hibs hold on to their talented kids amid interest from English clubs.
He explained: "We feel Ethan is our most talented young player at his age level at this moment in time, but I was able to say to his family, if you genuinely want to move elsewhere; fine. I'm not going to force you to sign with Hibs, I'm not going to batter down your door. If you genuinely think there is another club somewhere else in the world that is giving your son a better opportunity than Hibernian then no problem, we're not going to fall out about it.
Another strategic partnership?
"There's a mechanism that says we don’t sign him on a professional contract, and he moves down south and we get compensated by FIFA. It's not a huge amount of money; it probably doesn't really cover the cost we’ve invested over the years, but that's life.
"I'm not going to be responsible for a young person saying, ‘Graeme Mathie forced me into signing with Hibs and I wish I hadn't’.
“The only thing I considered in Ethan’s contract was a willingness for him to go and have training experiences at other clubs.
"This is something that we're trying to do with one club in particular as part of a strategic partnership, to let our youngsters go and experience something else, and that maybe gives them a bit of confidence, to see where they are against other players.
"But it definitely gives you a different environment and if it's done as part of a relationship with a club, it becomes an easier process.”
"No interest in selling”
Mathie knows the Brexit situation will likely mean more phone calls from clubs keen to take a chance on the Easter Road prospects, but he feels Hibs hold the ace card.
"If I send Ethan to train with another club, I’m doing so because I have agreed to allow him to experience training opportunities at other clubs,” he said.
"I have no interest in selling him at all. None. Because I think he's got an opportunity to progress at our club.
"He’s far better off staying at Hibs with a pathway to the first team than he is going somewhere else and messing about playing youth team football.
"There are very few, if any young players – Billy Gilmour may be the one exception – who have left Scotland at 16 and made it to be a top first-team player.
“So the conversations I have now about Josh Doig, for example, are entirely different to the conversations I have about Ethan and Murray.
First team hopes
"It’s not for me to tell a family or a young child what they can and can't do but I would always paint a picture: don't mither to go and become a youth team player somewhere else before you really consider what you're signing up for. And that’s where we’re at with Ethan.
"He is a player who we think is going to go into the first team. And if he does, it's an entirely different conversation.”
In Jack Ross, Hibs have a manager prepared to give youngsters a chance in the first team, and Mathie believes this is vital to convincing the next generation that their immediate futures lie in Leith.
The kids are all right
“It comes back to how I think we as a country should value our young talent and our young players. What's incumbent upon us is to create a pathway for them to get into the team. I couldn’t say these things if I didn’t in my heart of hearts think that we had a management staff that were going to play young players.
“Jack putting Ethan on the bench and Josh Doig in the team this year shows me that we do, so I can say with hand on heart that it's part of the conversation, and part of the decision-making.
"I can tell those youngsters: ‘you're at a club that does value young players coming through, and we'll create a pathway and an opportunity for you to do that’.”