Rising Hibs star needs minimal guidance on path to stratosphere

Rory Whittaker and David Marshall - combined age 55 - in action for Hibs.Rory Whittaker and David Marshall - combined age 55 - in action for Hibs.
Rory Whittaker and David Marshall - combined age 55 - in action for Hibs. | SNS Group
‘We’ve got a good one there,’ says former prospect turned veteran pro

There is nothing so precarious as potential. Constantly being told that you have the talent to reach the very top can be a burden as well as a gift.

When Rory Whittaker picked up the Academy Player of the Year award at the Hibs end-of-season ceremony last weekend, however, the 16-year-old impressed – not for the first time – with his measured words in response to being singled out. The kid has a sense of assuredness that shows no sign of tipping into arrogance, the downfall of so many hot prospects over the years.

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His quality is not in doubt. You know all those nice things Nick Montgomery used to say, publicly, about a player who became the youngest debutant in club history? The now-departed manager is even more fulsome in his praise when the tapes are off; he sees Whittaker as the real deal.

Nor will the teenager be short of guidance within the squad. With only the odd exception, every single player in that Hibs squad was probably the best player at his school, the best in his boys’ team, proper footballers destined to become of the elite one per cent (rounded up) who make it in the pro game.

Yet even a team-mate with an almost identical back story admits that, in this instance, young Rory doesn’t need much guidance. The impression given, by those who work with him on a regular basis, is of a self-possessed character who understands exactly what he needs to do next.

Experienced left back Jordan Obita, recalling his own debut for Reading – managed by current Hibs director of football Brian McDermott, ironically - as a 16-year-old, laughed when asked to compare his own journey with that of Whittaker, saying: “I was a lot skinnier, certainly compared to Rory when you look at him! To be fair, Rory is quite a confident young lad. He honestly doesn’t need much advice.

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“But he does come up for a chat at times. And we’ll all help out wherever we can, as senior pros.

“Honestly, the club has got a good one there. And it’s not just him, either. There are some other players in there, a lot of quality in the youth team – players the club should hopefully be proud of, one day, when they step up and cement their places.”

Hibs have form on this front, of course. Josh Doig and Ryan Porteous are just two recent high-profile products of a youth development programme that, over the years, has nurtured the elite talents of players like Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Steven Fletcher, Garry O’Connor, Derek Riordan, Steven Whittaker … not to mention Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson.

Montgomery was a great believer in getting youth players to train with the first team, considering it a more reliable route to development than any number of best-v-best games against kids their own age. When injuries and international absences left Hibs desperately short of bodies for training, he had no hesitation in packing first-team sessions with players promoted from the under-18s.

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“The gaffer brought a lot of the 18s into training all the time, especially if we were short of numbers,” recalled Obita, who picked up not one but two POTY awards on Sunday, the 30-year-old adding: “Quite a few of them got a chance to make their debuts, but also there was a spell where they trained with us every single day, which is a great benefit to them.

“When all the senior boys started coming back from injury and international duty, we didn’t see them as much. But hopefully in the next year, the next couple of years, the fans see a lot more of these players – because they are very good.”

Remembering his own ‘senior’ debut in a 1-0 Carling Cup win for Reading back in August of 2010, Obita said: “I made my debut at 16, yeah. Brian was actually the manager, and it was a cup game against Torquay away. I got told I was on the bench, which was unbelievable, because I literally just came out of school. Then he turns to me on the bench and says: ‘Get ready.’ We had 10 minutes to go, and it was nil-nil.

“I remember playing those final nine or ten minutes. We had a set-piece that came out, I SHANKED the volley back into the box – and we scored from it! It was an amazing feeling to be playing, first of all. But to help out in a win, in a cup game, was incredible.”

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Everybody needs a bit of luck in life, of course. Even the most successful footballers in the history of the game have, as a rule, stressed the value of being in the right place at the right time, working under just the right manager. Someone willing to give them a chance, yes. But also smart enough to manage expectations, not least on the part of a player suddenly parachuted into a dressing room full of seasoned pros.

Whittaker, an articulate and engaging young man, still has a great deal to learn about playing at the top level in Scotland. Five Premiership starts and a handful of substitute appearances haven’t gone to his head.

In accepting his award last weekend, the Scotland Under-19 cap sounded just the right note, saying: “It has been a good season for me - and very hectic at the same time. I can’t take it for granted, and I am really privileged to win this award. All the coaches made it clear that the debut was just the first milestone and that I needed to keep going.”