Two men locked together at the top of the Championship scoring charts but at opposite ends of their playing careers are likely to have a big say in the outcome of Saturday’s Palmerston showdown between Queen of the South and Hibs.
Stephen Dobbie, the 34-year-old Queens talisman, and Jason Cummings, the 21-year-old Easter Road goal machine, have both struck 12 times in the league this season and sit four clear of the next best, Dunfermline Athletic’s Nicky Clark. Dobbie has 18 goals in all competitions; Cummings has 14. They are the two standout attackers in Scotland’s second tier.
Dobbie has already experienced the peak of his career, having spent seven years in England with the likes of Swansea City, Blackpool, Brighton, Crystal Palace, Fleetwood Town and Bolton Wanderers. In the early part of his time down south, he featured prominently at the top end of the the Championship and got a brief shot at the top flight. The former Hibs forward sees no reason why the highly-regarded Cummings, with his best years still ahead of him, can’t do something similar.
“There was a big bid for him in the summer [from Peterborough United], but he stayed at Hibs and has been scoring more goals for them, so I’m sure he’ll move on to bigger things in the coming seasons,” Dobbie told the Evening News. “He’s still a young boy and he’s still learning but he’s already scored a lot of goals over the last few seasons. As long as he keeps putting the ball in the back of the net, people will be watching him.”
Although Dobbie has already achieved some of what Cummings undoubtedly aspires to, it is safe to say that the current Hibs striker is the early bloomer of the two. By the age Cummings is now – 21-and-a-half – Dobbie had scored six goals in 33 appearances for Hibs, having failed to make the breakthrough at boyhood club Rangers. Cummings already has 62 goals (ten times Dobbie’s tally) and has accumulated more than 130 first-team appearances. It wasn’t until he was 26, when he earned a surprise move to Swansea City from Queens in 2009, that Dobbie was deemed worthy of the level of interest that Cummings has been attracting over the past year or so.
“I went a different road to what Jason’s going down,” said Dobbie. “Scottish football was different when I was coming through to what it is now. When I was coming through at Rangers, I was competing with £12m players. It’s changed days now. It should help someone like Jason that he’s been given a chance to get in and score goals a good few years before he gets to 21. That can only bode well for his future.”
Having seized his opportunity when it eventually arrived, the late-flourishing Dobbie has no regrets about the fact he spent much of his early 20s scrambling to stay in the game, as opposed to illuminating it.
“I might have got in earlier, but, if I’d gone down a different road at the start, there’s no guarantee it would have been as good for me later on in my career,” he said. “You can’t have any regrets. You just enjoy what you’ve achieved and see if you can achieve more.”
Dobbie’s return to Queens last summer has worked out well for player and club. The veteran has been the Dumfries team’s main man and is sure to be in the reckoning when the division’s player of the year gongs are handed out. A continuation of his early-season prowess is likely to be required in the remaining months of the campaign if his team, who have rediscovered their form under new manager Gary Naysmith following a mid-term slump, are to haul themselves back into the play-off zone.
“I’ve really enjoyed being back at Queens,” he said. “I’m playing every week and scoring goals. I’d like to have won more games, but that’s starting to come now under the new manager. On a personal note, I’ve scored 18 goals and there’s still a good part of the season to go, so I’ll be quite pleased if I can keep contributing goals. I’m not really paying attention to trying to beat Cummings anything like that. It’s all about the team, and trying to get away from relegation and push towards the play-offs. If I’m scoring goals, then great, but it doesn’t matter who’s scoring – it’s all about getting the team pushing up the table.”
In that regard, things are currently going well for Queens. The Dumfries side topped the Championship under Gavin Skelton in mid-September, but then badly lost their way as a 13-game run without a league win took them down towards the relegation zone. However, Naysmith’s arrival last month has prompted a gradual resurgence. Queens have lost only one of their last seven – away to on-form Morton – and have won two of their last three games. They are in good fettle as they prepare to welcome a Hibs side buoyed by a four-game winning run and a six-point advantage at the top of the table.
“We’ve picked up seven points from our three games hard away games, and we also feel we should have beaten Dundee United, so we’re in in good form and we’re looking forward to playing the best team in the league,” said Dobbie. “It’ll be a good game between two teams playing with confidence.
“We beat them at Easter Road [in the League Cup], and I felt we should have beaten them at Palmerston [in September], but then they beat us 4-0 [at Easter Road in November]. I wasn’t playing that day but the boys said that was the best they had seen them this season.
“It’s still too early to say they’ll definitely win the title because United are only six points behind, but they’ve definitely got the strongest squad. You only have to look at their bench in the last few weeks to see how strong they are.”
Dobbie pinpoints Naysmith’s work on the training field and in the transfer market as the main reasons for Queens’ return to form. Among those who have been recruited recently are John Rankin, the veteran former Hibs midfielder, who was instantly installed as captain. The 33-year-old’s three appearances thus far have coincided with the Doonhamers taking seven points from a possible nine.
“The manager’s come in and changed some personnel and changed the way we work on the training field, and we’re benefiting from that,” said Dobbie. “You can see that the boys are playing for him because of the results we’re getting. He’s made his changes and he’s made John captain, and everybody respects that.
“John’s had a good career in Scotland and he’s very experienced, so he was always going to be a good addition to a young squad. The likes of myself, Derek Lyle and Andy Dowie can all pass on our knowledge to the younger ones, but it helps us that we’ve got another older head in like John. A lot of people like to have a lot of young players in their team, but I think you’ve got to have a good mix of young players and experienced ones who know the game well.”