What Hibs' defeat by Dundee in SPFL Reserve Cup told us about the club's development squad and youngsters
Steve Kean previewed the match as a warm-up game of sorts for next week’s European showdown with Molde and afterwards, said his players would ‘benefit from an exercise’ like this.
So what, if anything, did Hibs’ SPFL Reserve Cup defeat by Dundee tell us about the club’s approach to youth and youngsters?
Much has been made of the Easter Road side’s approach to development: snapping up promising youngsters from across the globe to supplement the existing academy players and, in a perfect world, lead a few of them along the pathway to the first team.
At the moment the club is running a men’s senior team, a women’s team, a development side, and a sprawling academy, although the under-19 age limit for the UEFA Youth League means a temporary additional group between the under-18s and the development team. Understandably the majority of fans are concerned with the first team, and the first team only. They want positive results, high-table finishes, and European football.
Even last season when the under-18s were swatting teams aside on a regular basis, there weren’t an awful lot of spectators besides parents and family.
There is perhaps increased interest in the youngsters because of their exploits last season but it seems to be if it doesn’t concern the men’s first-team squad, it’s barely on the radar for most supporters.
And maybe Hibs need to take a bit of ownership on that front. Other clubs have been noticeably better at promoting their youth players on social media while the Easter Road side was relatively late to the party and is still playing catch-up to a certain degree.
Turning the club around
Hibs are doing a lot of good things at the moment. The commercial side of the club has been overhauled and while it hasn’t been without issues, such as the Sportemon Go episode, it has been an improvement on what went before.
The stadium has been refurbished inside and out, Hibs Kids has been revamped, the training centre has been upgraded, and there are further off-field initiatives being carried out in the community.
It’s probably too early to say if the recruitment team has got it right with the majority of the new signings although the return of Martin Boyle and acquisitions of David Marshall and Marijan Čabraja have solved a couple of glaring positional issues in the squad and there has been the obvious change in the dugout with Lee Johnson’s appointment.
If owner Ron Gordon is serious about turning Hibs into a consistent force in Scottish football then so far, it would seem that things are looking broadly positive – but what about the slow burn progress of the development squad?
A stepping stone
The achievements of the wee Hibees – title-winners and reaching the last four of the Youth Cup – should not be ignored but it should also be stressed that all the games, league and cup, were played against other youngsters.
The nucleus of last year’s under-18s have played together for a significant amount of time. Passes were telepathic, movement subconscious, runs into space automatic. Players who weren’t regular starters fitted in seamlessly when called upon. They were fun to watch when the men’s first team wasn’t.
Former Hibs boss Shaun Maloney handed a debut to one of them – Josh O’Connor – in a 3-1 defeat by Aberdeen at Pittodrie. Four more made their debut on the final day of the season in that 4-0 dead-rubber win against St Johnstone under interim boss David Gray – Murray Aiken, Jacob Blaney, Robbie Hamilton, and Oscar MacIntyre.
Fans questioned why they hadn’t been given a chance earlier when Hibs were a) struggling for goals and b) ravaged by injury but it is a big step up from under-18s football to the Scottish Premiership. Bar Blaney, all of the youngsters who made their senior bow earlier this year lined up against a Dundee team that, while not full strength, had a few very experienced first-teamers in it.
The final scoreline of 4-0 may have been a touch unfair on Hibs but it serves as a reminder of the chasm between youth football and the senior game.
"When you start off your career you will be playing against experienced pros and it pushes you out of your comfort zone,” Kean added after the game.
"You are always disappointed to lose a match, but when you put it into context and look at it from our point of view with the UEFA Youth League next week, it puts the team selection and result into perspective.”
The suggestion is that the players will have learned more from a chastening defeat than they might from a 6-0 victory over another under-18 team – as happened so often last season, and the coaches may well have learned more about the individuals.
As Hibs have said, the idea of the development side is to bridge the gap between the academy and the first team. That’s why Darren McGregor plays in most games; an experienced – and gruff – voice to guide his younger team-mates through matches, and why most squads are a blend of under-18s, fringe first-teamers, and those in between.
Against Dundee, the absence of Blaney and Johnson through international duty weakened the spine against an already formidable opponent while injury to Ethan Laidlaw reduced options in attack. But it’s not that long ago that the development squad took Brechin City to penalties in the SPFL Trust Trophy.
There will be further defeats, and Hibs will learn from them as well.
But with the club making the right movements in other departments, the next few months for the development squad could be worth keeping an eye on.
It will naturally take time but if the talented youngsters who performed so well at under-18 level can kick on, it might not be all that long before they’re knocking on the door of the first team – which ultimately is what the whole exercise is all about.