Neil Lennon has rarely missed an under-20s match since becoming Hibs manager almost two years ago. His regular presence on the sidelines has had a galvanising effect on a group of young players who this week secured the SPFL Development League title after missing out last season in agonising fashion.
For teenagers with ambitions of carving careers at the top level, the occasional words of encouragement, criticism and advice from a man of Lennon’s stature, both during and after games, have served to provide additional motivation and inspiration on the road to glory.
“He rarely misses a 20s game, which shows how much faith and interest he has in the academy and the young players,” 18-year-old right-back Callum Donaldson told the Evening News. “He’s very good with the young boys. After the games, he will give you an indication of what he thinks of you. He’s very good with his feedback after the game. He’s quite black and white with his thoughts. He’ll tell you what you’re not so good at but equally he’ll heap praise on you as well. It’s good for us. When you hear him shouting wee pointers from the side of the park, it gives you a wee lift.”
Lennon’s interest in the development team has extended to promoting players like Oli Shaw, Ryan Porteous and Fraser Murray into his squad over the past year. Donaldson, Sean Mackie, Kevin Dabrowski and Ben Stirling are among the others who have had fleeting involvement with the first-team squad. Buoyed by securing a league title, Grant Murray’s youngsters are determined to start making their presence felt in Lennon’s squad. “Oli and Ryan have been brilliant for us this season and they’ve shown they can handle stepping up to the first team,” said Donaldson. “That’s something the rest of us have got to look towards and try and do it ourselves. It’s something I definitely feel a good few of the lads are capable of. I’ve been on the bench a handful of times in previous seasons. I was in the squad for the Scottish Cup game against Hearts at Easter Road last season, which was brilliant. It whets your appetite to get on the pitch. I was itching to get on the pitch that night but hopefully I’ll get that opportunity.”
Donaldson knows from the experience of his older brother that the step from development team to first team is not an easy one to make. Around five years ago, Brad Donaldson was on the fringes of Pat Fenlon’s squad but despite being highly regarded, he was never able to follow peers like Sam Stanton and Jordon Forster into the team. “My brother was on the bench a lot under Pat Fenlon and Terry Butcher but he never managed to get on the pitch,” said Donaldson of a sibling who is now at Musselburgh Juniors. “He was really unfortunate with injuries and stuff, but he’s always giving me advice. He was giving me pointers about how to deal with playing against older guys when I went on loan to Berwick earlier in the season, and stuff like that.”
The Hibs youngsters secured the league title on Tuesday evening with a game to spare as nearest challengers Dundee lost to Hearts a few hours after Hibs had defeated Aberdeen 2-0 at Oriam. “The boys were all on the group chat and we were following the Dundee game on Twitter,” said Donaldson. “When Dundee were leading, we thought it wasn’t going to happen for us but thankfully it did. The group chat was buzzing. I was with my dad and my brother keeping an eye on the scores so it was a strange way to win my first title. It feels good though.”
Hibs have a chance to add further silverware when they contest the final of the SFA Youth Cup against Aberdeen at Hampden a week tonight. Donaldson believes the heartache of being pipped for the league title and being eliminated from the Youth Cup at the semi-final stage last season has steeled them for this year’s tilt at the double. “I think last season has stood us in good stead because we had some big games last year,” he said. “We lost narrowly to Celtic in the semi-final last year and we lost the league title. It was horrible and we didn’t want to feel that again. I think that’s helped us put all our efforts into this season and we’ve come away with some cracking results in the league and cup. The fact we’ve beaten Celtic in the cup semi-final and gone the distance in the league shows we’ve learned from last year and improved.”
Coach Murray, who won the Youth Cup as a Hearts player 25 years ago, was thrilled to see his young charges earn such a notable prize at the fledgling stage of their career. “At the start of the season we don’t say we’re setting out to win the league – it’s about developing players first and foremost,” he explained. “But when we got to a certain point in the season at the top of the league, it kicked into the players that they had a chance of winning the league. We were in a similar position with a few games to go last season and Ross County went on to win it, so we knew what it was going to take, but full credit to every single one of them for going the distance and getting it wrapped up with a game to go.
“I think the players were disappointed last year because they’d won a lot of games and been top for a long time, but football can be cruel. Now they’ve got something to look back on regardless of whether they all make it in professional football or not. Hopefully they all do. But at this point in your career, you never know if you’re going to get a chance to win anything at first-team level. An honour like this is always something you can look back on and say you were part of a good squad at youth level.”
Hibs last won the youth league in 2009, when they also claimed the Youth Cup. David Wotherspoon and Callum Booth were the only players in that side who went on to make any notable impact in the first team before eventually continuing their careers elsewhere. Murray is optimistic that several of the current crop will establish themselves in the first team in the coming years. “Hopefully more of them can follow the likes of Oli, Ryan and Fraser and get into the first-team squad,” said the coach. “A few of the others have been in the first-team squad and a few have trained with the first team. They can’t rest on their laurels after winning the league though. It’s up to them to push on now. Sometimes you only get one chance to make it as a professional footballer. Winning the development league is a great achievement but it doesn’t count for anything in terms of professional football. They’ve got to kick themselves on individually to give themselves the best opportunity they can to be a professional footballer for Hibs.”