Joe McBride believes his young Hibs side not only have the carrot of a Hampden appearance dangling in front of them when they face Celtic in the semi-final of the SFA Youth Cup tonight – but the chance to force their way into boss Alan Stubbs’ thoughts as he prepares for the Premiership play-offs.
Pointing to how 18-year-old Aaron Dunsmore found himself among the substitutes for both the final Edinburgh derby of the season and the Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk, Hibs development coach, pictured below, insisted his young team-mates should be equally determined to catch Stubbs’ eye.
McBride’s side wrap up their league campaign at home to champions Aberdeen on Monday night but hope to extend their season by beating Celtic at Cappielow. But while the thought of a winner’s medal will drive them on, their coach believes a first-team debut would be an even bigger prize.
The likes of Lewis Allan, Conner Duthie, Scott Martin and Kleton Perntreou have all had a taste of the big time this season, and the former Hibs player said: “It’s great at this stage of the season; the boys still have something to play for in terms of getting to the final but if I was them I would be thinking that the first team have hopefully four huge games to play and you never know what might happen.
“Aaron is a prime example. He’s been on the bench a few times and was there for the semi-final against Falkirk. It was something he probably did not expect, but unfortunately David Gray and Keith Watson were injured and he found himself among the substitutes.
“God forbid there are any more injuries, but these lads have to be thinking they might be involved in the play-offs and that has to be an incentive for them tonight. A medal would be nice but what would it mean to make your debut at 18? I remember when I was coming through and telling myself I was only 18 and my dad used to ram it down my throat that Denis Law was playing for Scotland at that age.
“It’s that old football cliche – if you are good enough you are old enough.”
The fact that Allan, Martin, Dunsmore and Callum Crane have been joined by Aaron Scott and Jordan Sinclair in penning extended contracts underlines the interest Stubbs takes in the club’s youth system, the head coach and his staff of Andy Holden and John Doolan familiar figures at the vast majority of their games.
Again, insisted McBride, that knowledge should act as a spur to his young charges. He said: “If I were in their shoes then the fact the manager came into the dressing-room before Monday night’s game [away to Hamilton] to wish them good luck would be my biggest motivation, to know that he was there.
“The manager has been at most of our games and that he and his staff take such an interest is terrific. For the boys the fact he is there might make one or two a bit nervous but the thinking should be that you’re going to go out there and show him what you can do.
“I can say to him that so-and-so or so-and-so is doing well but when he can see it with his own eyes it’s much better for the lads and they should take great pride in the fact he’s always there.”
Hibs have already drawn at Morton’s ground against Celtic only to lose narrowly to the Glasgow outfit at their own adopted home, Ainslie Park, but McBride admitted tonight’s game was perhaps a touch unpredictable given the cup rules dictate only Under-20 players can be involved which is not the case in the SPFL Development League where senior players frequently feature.
He said: “When we drew 1-1 early in the season Celtic were full of experienced players while we were a very young team. In the game at Ainslie we probably had slightly more experience. That’s the way it is in the league, one week you are full of experienced players, the next it’s Under-17s. Celtic are obviously a talented side as you would expect but it’s one we are looking forward to. We’ll give it our best shot and I’m sure it will be a cracking game.”
And McBride believes his players can draw confidence from their own cup run, the young Hibees having beaten Aberdeen on penalties at Pittodrie before defeating Kilmarnock at Easter Road and then Queen’s Park.
He said: “Aberdeen was probably the toughest we’ve had. We weren’t great first half but we came back strong in the second and could possibly have won it in normal time and again in extra time. But to get through gave the lads real confidence and the fact Aberdeen have gone on to win the league with a degree of comfort shows how well they did.
“Playing at Pittodrie and Easter Road for the first time for many of them was also a great experience and, to be honest, they are a little disappointed we’re not at Celtic Park tonight. I’m sure that would have been nice for both teams, it would certainly have been a first for my boys and perhaps for some of the Celtic players too. With the greatest of respect to Cappielow, it’s not Celtic Park which, I think, would have inspired them.”
While the upheaval at first-team level at Easter Road has been well documented, there have also been great changes in the youth academy with familiar faces both among the coaching and playing staff having departed. However, McBride said: “The boys have been great since minute one when I came in. It’s up to us to get them as consistent as you can so the manager can trust them and put them in.”
Hibs will be without Callum Crane who is suspended and Aaron Scott, the former Hearts kid being cup-tied.