John Hughes skelped Liam Polworth on the head during a recent goal celebration, but the Inverness manager has had far greater impact on the midfielder’s development. Polworth received his first Scotland Under-21 call-up last week and credits Hughes for much of his progress.
Having represented his country at under-16 and under-17 level, Polworth was called into Ricky Sbragia’s group after consistent displays in the Highlands this season. He has not long recovered from being thumped by an ecstatic Hughes at Easter Road live on television, however there has thankfully been no lasting fallout.
The sight of Polworth rubbing his upper jaw in the dugout whilst Hughes bounced around the technical area in delight will be one of the season’s enduring images. Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo’s equaliser for Inverness against Hibs in the Scottish Cup left the manager jumping for joy, so much so that one of his fist-pumps collided with Polworth.
It’s fair to say the player prefers the more considered and methodical side to his coach. Edinburgh-born Hughes is a huge believer in youth development and Polworth sees him as a key factor in his Scotland Under-21 recognition.
“I’m not sure why he punched me in the head,” he smiled. “I think he was looking for his mate in the crowd and I happened to be in the way and got one right in the head. We had a laugh about it, but I didn’t get much sympathy.
“The manager is big on bringing through young players, he gives you confidence and doesn’t put pressure on you. You just go out and play but there are only a few younger ones in the side and the older ones help you out. He gives you that platform just to go and play your football. Everyone likes the way he plays and that makes it easier for the young boys as it’s not all about the physical side of the game.
“He likes to have a laugh and a joke, but he can also be serious. For any young player, he’s an attractive manager to play for because you know he’s going to give you a chance. He’s the one who picks the team and he’s the one who’s given me the chance.”
Hughes’ challenge to hone young players is bigger in the Highlands than anywhere else, purely because of a lack of numbers in the area. “It’s difficult when you are a youngster as we haven’t got many players to choose from,” admitted Polworth. “There are far more players in the west of Scotland and there is much more choice.
“I haven’t really seen much of the Ross County kids but we have one or two, there’s the likes of Nick Ross, and we will be looking to bring through more. Sometimes all it takes is the chance to play and then they can show they are good enough. I speak to a lot of the boys in the under-20’s as well as some of the coaches and there are a few ready to come through. All they need is the chance and a little glimmer of hope.”
Polworth, 21, is part of the Scotland squad departing for France this morning for a European Under-21 Championship qualifier. International recognition is a huge achievement and he is itching to get involved if Sbragia sees fit, but don’t ask him if anyone looks up to him.
“I was delighted when the [Scotland] call came through from my club. I knew a few of the boys from the younger age groups and Ryan Christie too, being from Inverness.That made it a bit easier, I guess. I’ve no idea whether I’ll be involved. I’ll hopefully show enough in training.
“I don’t think I’m a role model for anyone, but these Inverness kids will be wanting to come through in the way I have. It may give them a bit of confidence and belief that it can be done. If they keep going then they are capable of beating a path into the first team.”
Ambitious youngsters at the Caledonian Stadium may get more chances in future. Inverness will lose both James Vincent and Danny Williams this summer. Both have signed pre-contract agreements to join Dundee, as if to emphasise the difficulty in trying to keep a squad together up north.
Polworth believes Highland football has never fared better given both the Scottish Cup and League Cup currently reside there. “Maybe there is a bit of a balance shift,” he said. “Ross County have done brilliantly this season to win a cup and are well up the league table. Players no longer feel the Highlands is such a bad to play to go and play their football.
“A lot of boys have come up and played their football here and earned really good moves back down south. It’s much more attractive now given the both teams are going. The Highlands are stronger now for player development and Graeme Shinnie is a great example of that. He’s gone on to play for Aberdeen and has been captain for the last few weeks and doing brilliantly.”
France away is about as tough an initiation as an under-21 internationalist can get. Polworth isn’t daunted, although he is fully aware of what to expect in the Stade Jean Bouin in Angers tomorrow.
“It’s going to be another difficult game. I didn’t play in the first game at Pittodrie, but the lads were saying it was tough. It’s going to be difficult, but that’s what we have to expect. We’ve been working hard in training.”