Is a second Hibs “Golden Generation” on the horizon?
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It is nearly two decades since the precocious talents of Scott Brown, Garry O’Connor, Derek Riordan, Kevin Thomson, Steven Whittaker et al were making the footballing world sit up and take notice.
Consecutive League Cup wins against Celtic and Rangers en route to the final were an indication of how special the group was and that virtually all of them moved on to a higher level and the achievements that typically go along with such an upward trajectory proved that.
Since then, while a fair number of players have caught the eye, it tends to be in dribs and drabs; one or two players here and there who might make it in the Hibs first team.
What constitutes success?
Measuring the success of a football academy is often based on how many graduates go on to forge a successful career in football, rather than how many progress to the club’s first team. Naturally the hope for some clubs is that they can nurture a handful of youngsters who can go on to feature for the first team.
Hibs have made a fair amount of money over the years with the sale of Academy graduates and young players who may not have progressed through the club’s youth system but have played first-team games at a young age, such as John McGinn.
In the SPFL, not counting current loanees or Hibs first-teamers, there are at least 34 players who spent some time in the Hibs Academy. Not all graduate, granted, but broadly speaking, that suggests that the Hibs Academy is succeeding in helping to produce professional footballers.
Why it feels different now
Plenty has been written about Josh Doig and Ryan Porteous and how the pair of them have progressed. Both caught the eye at a young age, both made their debut for the first-team as 18-year-olds, and both impressed on loan at lower-league sides before being fast-tracked into the Easter Road first team.
Attacker Jamie Gullan was involved before heading out on loan and defender Sean Mackie played a handful of games earlier this season as well while Josh Campbell and Fraser Murray, temporarily with Edinburgh City and Dunfermline respectively, have also had first-team experience.
It’s not just the players in the 20-22 age bracket, either.
Callum Yeats (19), and Jack Brydon and Jayden Fairley (both 17) are getting regular game time for Stenhousemuir. Prior to the suspension of the Lowland League 16-year-old Connor Young was impressing for Civil Service Strollers, and recently scored a brace for Hibs Under-18s in a 4-0 win against Dundee United.
Laidlaw was part of the matchday squad for the Scottish Premiership match against Rangers at Ibrox while Blaney travelled with the team and took part in the pre-match warm-up. While the latter wasn’t named in the squad there is every chance that he will be between now and the end of the season, given Ross’ tendency to give younger players first-team exposure.
Fighting off interest
Laidlaw and Under-18s goalkeeper Murray Johnson have been the subject of interest from teams in England while Doig and Porteous have also attracted the attention of several clubs south of the Border. Part of this is almost certainly down to the post-Brexit ruling that prevents teams in the English Premier League or Football League signing players under the age of 18 from European Union member states.
Several English Premier League and Championship clubs now employ scouts tasked solely with scouring the Scottish leagues for talented prospects.
But it could also be that for the first time since the “Golden Generation”, Hibs simply have a lot of talented youngsters on their books.
The ace up the sleeve
The interest in Hibs’ talented youngsters is unlikely to wane, especially if they keep on performing. There is a lot to weigh up if that interest becomes something more substantial.
Do they want to leave home at a young age? Will they be happy? Will they play regularly? Might they be better off staying and developing at Hibs?
The uncertainty cause by Covid-19 might also have an effect: are Hibs more likely to give youth a chance rather than go through the rigmarole of trying to bring in a player from abroad who may have to quarantine, and might not settle or adapt to Scottish football?
In any discussions Hibs can point to Doig and Porteous and stress that the pathway to the first team is open.
The partnership with Stenhousemuir should help, in that 17 and 18-year-olds getting bowled over by grizzled journeymen strikers presumably does more for their development than facing off against teams of their peers – see Josh Doig at Queen’s Park, or Ryan Porteous at Edinburgh City.
It would be hard not to use McGinn as an example of a player developing at Hibs and then moving on. The fact he has become one of the first names on the team sheet for Scotland probably doesn’t harm the argument either.
The future’s bright
Whatever happens with Doig, Johnson, Laidlaw, or Porteous there is a lot to admire about the Hibs Academy. It is about so much more than producing players who might be good enough for the Hibs first team; it’s about helping shape youngsters for their future – at Hibs, at another club, or not in football at all. It’s about “he (or she) is one of our own”, regardless of where they end up.
Seven Hibs Academy graduates have started competitive matches this season. On current evidence, that number only looks like rising.