Why more Hibs kids could get Easter Road first-team chance this season
This time last year, Scotland’s footballers were preparing to return to pre-season training. Hand sanitiser, masks, bubbles, regular testing, and stringent rules regarding social distancing were the order of the day.
While it was hardly top of the list of complaints, the strict measures and guidelines in place during the coronavirus pandemic made it much harder for managers to integrate youngsters into the first-team squad.
At East Mains, the senior squad was training at a different time to the younger age groups, preventing the coaching staff from being able to bring in players from the development or academy squads at short notice.
Stevie Bradley, who made his first-team debut last term, was somewhat fortunate in that his rehabilitation from an injury led to his inclusion in the senior squad. This season, there’s a greater chance of talented Hibs youngsters getting a chance to impress and with 17-year-old Jack Brydon and 16-year-old duo Connor Young and Oscar MacIntyre already getting a chance to play with the first team, it could be argued that the coaching staff are already making the most of the progress in battling the virus.
Excitement around 18s group
Last week’s pre-season meeting between Hibs and Civil Service Strollers at Christie Gillies Park – in front of supporters – gave Easter Road fans a chance to see the bulk of the Under-18s side that finished second in the league last season.
The wee Hibees duly delivered, with Josh O’Connor netting a hat-trick, Murray Aiken registering a goal and two assists, and Robbie Hamilton also getting on the scoresheet and catching the eye in midfield.
Jayden Fairley, who spent time on loan at Stenhousemuir, looked comfortable at left-back despite his usual deployment in midfield and Ethan Laidlaw showed why Leeds and Liverpool have been taking a look at him in recent months.
There is a real buzz around this group, not least because Young and O’Connor notched 18 goals between them in 12 games and some of England’s Premier League clubs have been sniffing around Laidlaw and goalkeeper Murray Johnson.
But on top of that, many of the players are physically strong and proved more than capable of holding their own against much older players against Strollers. Tonight, many of them will face Dunbar United of the East of Scotland League and again, will come up against players with far more experience.
With some fringe players having already left the club – most notably Callum Yeats and Fraser Murray – this season may be the perfect time to give some of the younger players a taste of senior squad life, as Laidlaw and Jacob Blaney had last season, if not first-team minutes.
The Doig effect
Jack Ross has already spoken about the opportunities for young players to impress. Speaking after the weekend’s 4-1 friendly win against Dunfermline Athletic the head coach said: “The circumstances sometimes dictate that young players are given an opportunity.
"We’ve spoken regularly about how Josh benefited from that last pre-season, and this pre-season we’ve had a little bit of disruption so Connor Young, Oscar MacIntyre, and Jack Brydon have been training with us all week and the reward for them was to be involved against Dunfermline.
“All were terrific. Connor’s goal will grab more headlines because it’s a tangible reward but the other two players’ performances were excellent as well.”
Ross has form for handing young players their debut in line with the old adage of, “if they're good enough, they're old enough” and this season he may well be inclined to do more of that.
Doig impressed in pre-season last summer after a truncated loan spell at Queen’s Park. Twelve months after he was turning out for the Spiders against the likes of Cove Rangers, he was being linked with clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea.
There is a clear pathway to the first team at Easter Road and if players seize the opportunities that come their way, the sky appears to be the limit.
Busy 21/22 campaign
With four domestic competitions and Europe on the go from later this month, there will be plenty of opportunities for some of these talented youngsters to take another step forward.
In 2018, Jamie Gullan was handed his first-team debut against NSI Runavik in the Faroe Islands when the tie was done and dusted, and Ross might hope to do likewise in the Europa Conference League – if the games allow it.
The SPFL Trust Trophy, or Challenge Cup, will be contested by Under-21 teams from the Scottish Premiership and a quick glance at the Easter Road first team suggests the Hibs Under-21 line-up could well be the Under-18s plus Bradley, Doig, Josh Campbell, and Daniel Mackay, who will all still be eligible, along with one overage player.
Last time in the Challenge Cup, Hibs youngsters were only beaten by Elgin City’s first team thanks to an injury-time winner. Even if the Easter Road side fall at the first hurdle again, it will be invaluable experience that was sadly missing from last season as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Partnerships and pathways
Hibs now have four partnerships with other clubs in Brighton, Charleston Battery, Strollers, and Stenhousemuir and have been hammering home the benefits of being able to work with the other teams in terms of player development – whether that’s sending players to train with other clubs, arrange loan deals, or play bounce games.
For many teams and players, the 2020/21 campaign will be viewed as a largely forgotten season.
Players didn’t have the chance to play as much as they wanted and closed-doors games became nigh-on impossible to set up.
All being well, this exciting group of players will get a chance to build on their efforts last season and take a step forward in their burgeoning careers and, as an added bonus, fans should be there to see the next generation getting their chance.