Billy Stark believes the way in which Alan Stubbs resurrected Scott Allan’s career could have helped persuade Chelsea to allow Islam Feruz – the forgotten youngster of Scottish football – to return north of the Border on loan to Hibs.
A clutch of English Championship and League One outfits were chasing the 19-year-old forward but Stubbs pulled off a major coup in making the former Celtic kid a signing on deadline day – a deal which former Scotland Under-21 coach Stark admitted had caught him totally by surprise.
Stark made Feruz the youngest to ever play for the Under-21 side when he capped him at just 16 against Italy in 2012, the Somalian-born prodigy having made his debut for Scotland’s Under-17 team aged only 14 three years earlier.
“I’d watched his reputation being forged as a youngster at Celtic,” recalled Stark. “And he was also coming through the Scottish youth teams having played 16s, 17s, and 19s so it was the natural thing to do.”
At that point, the next step for Feruz appeared to be a fairly rapid promotion to the full national squad itself but, much to the dismay of Celtic, who had nurtured his talent from the age of ten and campaigned to prevent him and his family being returned to the country of his birth, he decided to make an early move to the bright lights of London.
Stark said: “I think there was a bit of acrimony at the time. Celtic felt he should have been staying with them and developing. But, as we have seen in so many cases with young players, it doesn’t matter what age, money seems to talk. I think that was a big factor in him moving.”
In the intervening years, Feruz has all but disappeared from sight, yet to make a first-team appearance for Jose Mourinho’s side and with loan spells in Crete and at Blackpool resulting in only fleeting glimpses of action although, apparently, he remains highly rated at Stamford Bridge.
While confessing he’s not party to what has been going on, Stark pointed out that unlike at Celtic where the younger players can mingle with the more senior professionals, that would be unlikely to be the case at a club like Chelsea, and whether Feruz was prepared for that and living in a huge city such as London were other factors open to debate.
Feruz, though, was by far the first youngster to be tempted from Scottish football by the lure of playing in the English Premier League, only to find life not to be quite how they imagined it would be, and he certainly won’t be the last.
Stark said: “I think everyone can be seduced a wee bit by the Premier League, especially when it’s a top-four club. But going down there at that young age you are going to be a million miles from it.”
However, Stark, insists that like Scott Allan and Fraser Fyvie, both of whom found moves to West Bromwich Albion and Wigan Athletic turn sour, the one thing Feruz won’t have lost is that natural talent and he believes that having seen both those players enjoy a new lease of life in Edinburgh means Easter Road could be the ideal place for Feruz at this time.
He said: “There was a lot of excitement about Islam but like others he’s perhaps lost a bit of direction, a bit of focus. You don’t, though, lose that talent. I’ve spoken to Islam’s coach at Chelsea and he always played him because he felt he was a goal threat although he felt he could develop further.
“That, though, comes at different stages for different players.”
If Feruz had somewhat fallen off the radar on this side of the Border, Stark believes Stubbs’ role as youth coach at Everton has probably allowed him to keep tabs on players others had forgotten while the reputation of the former Celtic and Toffees defender – forged both at Goodison Park and then in his first season as a manager in his own right at Hibs – won’t have gone unnoticed at Chelsea.
He said: “Alan has done a good rehabilitation job on a few players, Scott Allan and Fraser Fyvie immediately spring to mind. His record is very good in that department. I would think Alan feels he knows enough about Feruz to get him back in the groove. He’s had success in that field and he’s probably seen more of Feruz down there and know more about him than a lot of people up here.
“I’d imagine that the work Alan has done both at Everton and now at Hibs was something Chelsea would probably have taken into account in allowing Islam to come to Hibs on loan.
“They must be confident he’ll be playing at a good level for a boy of his age and Hibs are as good a team as you can get with that stadium, the training ground and a young manager who has dealt with young players and who wants to pass the ball from the back.”
And, if the multi-millionaires of Mourinho’s first team do keep themselves apart from the aspiring wannabes at Stamford Bridge, Stark believes Feruz will find himself perfectly at home in a dressing-room packed with youngsters of a similar age, the now assistant manager at Albion Rovers well aware of players such as Paul Hanlon, James Keatings, Dylan McGeouch, Jason Cummings and Liam Henderson.
He said: “Alan has a young, energetic team that can develop together. Paul, Liam, James and Dylan are all players who have come through the Scotland youth system so I know all about them.
“I was a bit surprised Hearts let James go but Liam is a different story. He’s signed a long contract with Celtic but he’s come to Hibs to show he can be a Scottish Premiership player which I am sure he will do. Dylan is another I have a lot of time for. He’s a great dribbler and ball carrier, someone with a lot of ability who, like others, just needed to improve bits of his game.
“Hibs are clearly going to be an attacking team but they’ll also have to look for their midfielders to get among the goals as well.”
Stubbs has insisted he believes his side contains plenty of goals, pointing to Cummings ending last season as the Championship’s top scorer, backing Keatings to be a regular on the team sheet, underlining Dominique Malonga’s tally of 16 in his first year at Easter Road and that Farid El Alagui has still to return from injury.
Even so, he’s determined to add even more goals and, Stark insisted, Feruz can be the player to do exactly that. He said: “Islam is an instinctive finisher. He has a bit of composure but, while he does not do a lot in terms of build-up, he’s explosive.
“He’s a bit different to most players in Scotland but he really is explosive in the final third, always looking to get shots away.
“I’ve no doubt that’s definitely the reason Alan has brought him in – that’s the main part of Islam’s game. It’s a move that surprised me, one that came right out of left field, but he’ll be quite an exciting signing for Hibs.”