YOUTH development can be a cut-throat business, tainted by pushy parents, ambitious coaches and a system that treats children like commodities, but every now and then, a footballer like Ethan Hamilton comes along to remind us that there is another way.
If, as some like to pretend, the only path into professional football is by leaving your youth club, signing for the Old Firm at the earliest opportunity and training every hour God sends, the unassuming Edinburgh lad wouldn’t be where he is now.
In October, when he turned 16, Hamilton signed a three-and-a-half-year contract with Manchester United. For over four years, he has visited them to train – during the school holidays and more recently for weeks at a time – but it was never at the expense of Hutchison Vale, where he enjoyed his football and trusted the coaches.
Under pressure from a queue of Scottish clubs, Hamilton politely declined the opportunity to sacrifice his childhood. Celtic, the team his family supported, were keen to sign him, but the time wasn’t right. Aberdeen were given a similar answer. He said to the SFA that, for the moment, he would rather concentrate on his education than represent his country.
It hasn’t turned out badly. In November, he made his debut for United’s under-18 side against Bolton Wanderers. Last month he started and scored for them in a 5-2 win against Manchester City. He has also played in an FA Youth Cup tie at Old Trafford, watched by a crowd of more than 4,000 spectators, which included Louis Van Gaal, pictured right.
Not that Hamilton has achieved anything yet. He and his family would be the first to admit that only the tiniest minority of academy players establish themselves in the United first team. Darren Fletcher, who blazed the trail from Edinburgh, is an exception. John Rankin, Danny Galbraith and David Gray are the norm: players who received their education at Old Trafford but went on make their careers elsewhere.
John Thorburn, the United scout whose beat is the east of Scotland, first saw Hamilton play in 2010. With Hutchison Vale’s permission, he invited him south and has since watched him grow. “He’s got a chance, like anyone else, but there’s such a long way to go,” he says. “Everybody understands how difficult it is from joining at 16 to getting in the first team. The most important thing for United is that he listens, learns and grows up. They would just be very keen that he makes a living out of football and becomes a decent human being. That’s why they’ve got in excess of 140 players playing in England’s four divisions. Very few clubs outside the Premier League don’t have players who have been at United.”
A keen swimmer and basketball player when he was younger, Hamilton is tall and dynamic for his age. Two-footed, with a powerful shot, he has developed into an athletic central midfielder who plays without fear. Thorburn says the credit must go to Hutchison Vale and Tam Smith, who was Ethan’s coach from the age of five.
That team, born in 1998, won countless trophies, at local and national level, while also producing a handful of players who went on to join professional clubs. Smith has always been an admirer of Hamilton’s game, but more so of his attitude.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” says Smith. “He has a real determination to be the best he can be, but he’s also a great lad. Very mannerly. Very humble. In fact, he gets embarrassed about what has happened to him.”
When he still played for Hutchison Vale, you would never have known of the link with Manchester United. When they sent him boots as part of a sponsorship deal, he told team-mates that his grandfather had bought them. Sky TV asked him to take part in a documentary, but Ethan preferred to stay out of the limelight.
After Mark Wotte, then the SFA’s performance director, had seen Hamilton play in the 2012 Willie Bauld Memorial Cup final, the youngster was one of four Hutchison Vale players called into Scott Booth’s Scotland under-15 squad. Sean McKirdy would go on to join Hearts, and Regan Hendry signed for Celtic, but despite Wotte’s best efforts, Hamilton could not be persuaded to follow suit.
“I had a conversation with him,” says Wotte. “And the funny thing was that he didn’t want to join a pro-youth club. I said ‘are you not interested in becoming a very good football player?’ I told him that, if you are 14 or 15, you have to step up on a daily basis. You have to surround yourself with better players, more facilities and increase the training sessions. At Hutchie Vale, he had maybe three a week.
“But he was quite determined to go to an academy in England. He and his mother were very strong-minded. They knew exactly what they wanted. She wanted her son to finish school before he signed pro-youth. You have to respect that.”
After being selected for several Scotland squads, Ethan played no part in their 2013 Victory Shield success. Wotte says that he fell just short of the required standard. Thorburn claims that the SFA did not appreciate his refusal to leave Hutchison Vale.
His mother, Laurie, says it was Ethan who stepped back, fearful that too many commitments would affect his schoolwork. “He was sitting exams, he was having time away with United and he would have needed time away with Scotland. And we didn’t really know how they felt about Ethan. I don’t know if it was frowned upon that he was still at a boys club, but I do know it wasn’t right for Ethan at that time.”
Hamilton has never played for Scotland since, but there are no grudges. With Booth and Wotte now departed, Scot Gemmill is the SFA’s under-17s coach. One of his first priorities was to check with the Hamiltons that Ethan wanted to play for his country. “He would love to,” says Laurie. “It’s in his blood. It’s his country. There’s just no doubt about that whatsoever.”
While Hamilton is not in the squad for this week’s match against Romania, Gemmill has been to see him play for United’s under-16s. “He’s full of energy, really mobile,” says Gemmill. “If he’s in United’s under-18s, they obviously think a lot of him. I fully expect Ethan to play for the national team. It’s a matter of when not if.”
In the meantime, the boy has work to do, and not just on the pitch. A former pupil of James Gillespie’s, he now aims to finish his schooling at Ashton on Mersey secondary in Sale, Cheshire. With the football tailored around his full-time education, he wants grades that would get him into university.
In the years ahead, Hamilton will be paid to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world, but he and his mother are taking nothing for granted. “For me, football’s not that important,” says Laurie. “It’s good that he enjoys it, and he’s got this fantastic opportunity, but I always say, ‘you need to think about what you need for a job.’”
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