MATTHEW KENNEDY is gearing up for his first taste of the Edinburgh derby but the player could well have been introduced to its unique qualities had he and Everton manager Roberto Martinez consented to a loan move to Hibernian last January.
What is it they say about out of the mouths of bairns? Kennedy, still only 19, was not meaning to pass judgment yesterday on what had gone before. Rather, he was simply being honest while explaining the circuitous route taken on the way to becoming a Hibs player. He wore the green jersey for the first time when coming on as substitute in last weekend’s 2-1 win over Livingston. But he might have pulled it over his head as far back as January. After deciding that Kennedy, a winger/midfielder, needed to continue learning his trade in a first-team football environment, Martinez, who had taken over from David Moyes as Everton manager in the summer of 2013, considered Hibs as a possible location. At first glance, it made sense; a well-appointed training ground, a good record of blooding youngsters and a high-profile manager in Terry Butcher.
But on closer inspection, it became apparent this was not such a good idea. Not if the aim of the arrangement was to help Kennedy develop as a footballer. Butcher, it was already clear, was struggling to improve a Hibs team whose failings had already caused the axe to fall on Pat Fenlon. The former England skipper’s formula for arresting the slide seemed based on getting the ball from back to front as quickly as possibly, which meant the midfield was often bypassed completely. This was not deemed suitable for a player such as Kennedy, who Martinez wanted to learn how to play with the ball at his feet and create opportunities for others.
Now Alan Stubbs is in place as manager, Martinez knows the kind of tutoring from which Kennedy will be benefiting. Stubbs, who was the under-21 coach at Everton, is one reason why the Goodison Park manager was more comfortable with the idea of Kennedy joining Hibs. “I had the chance to come last year as well but we decided not to come because of what was happening then. They were just kicking the ball up the field,” revealed Kennedy.
“Now Alan has come you can tell it is all about passing and movement. That is why I came,” he added, while also admitting he is struggling to know how to refer to someone he used to play table tennis with at Finch Farm, Everton’s training ground. Is it Alan, Stubbsie or Gaffer? “He was laughing at me before the game at the weekend,” said Kennedy. “I half-called him ‘Stubbsie’ and ‘Gaffer’ at the same time!”
They are kindred spirits. “I like to play attacking football and that is the way he [Stubbs] plays.
“Because of my age I would probably have ended up going lower Championship or higher up in League One but we decided to come here,” continued Kennedy. “He [Martinez] knows what he is getting with Alan. He knows how Alan works with the players and he likes the way he has been treating me. He wants me to come to a lower league because he wants me to learn about the game, to see where I can and cannot go rather than being stuck out wide in League One. He wants me to go and create chances and be a match-winner.”
Rather than join Hibs in January, Kennedy ended up at Tranmere Rovers on a short-term loan, before joining MK Dons for the remainder of the season. Fortunately, in retrospect, he managed to escape Hibs’ death spiral towards the Championship. “Obviously I was not here last year. But I have heard some of the boys say it was not the best,” said Kennedy.
Martinez, who once played for Motherwell and has a healthy respect for the Scottish game, was eager for Kennedy to return north of the Border. Not everyone else has such a positive view of the Scottish game, however. “A lot of people do not understand Scottish football,” reported Kennedy. “A lot of the boys were like: ‘why would you come back up to Scotland, it’s not a very good league?’ But they do not understand how good Scottish football is. And Hibs are a massive club. I really wanted to come when I heard they were interested.”
Of course, Stubbs was a major catalyst in his decision to return to Scotland, where his career had begun in such eye-opening fashion when making his debut for Kilmarnock – in a game against Hibs at Easter Road, coincidentally – at the age of just 16.
Everton angered then Kilmarnock manager Kenny Shiels when luring Kennedy to England. The youngster had made only 14 first-team appearances for the Rugby Park club before Everton signed him for a six-figure fee, causing Shiels to complain that he had left too soon and had placed his future development in jeopardy.
There are no regrets on Kennedy’s part. Everton, he says, have made him a more mature player, encouraged him to go to college and ensured he grew accustomed to such simple details as saying “please” and “thank you” to staff members at the club. In short, it is where he has done his growing up.
“It was the right move,” he said, bluntly. “I went down there as a kid and now they have made me into a better person as well as a better player. I feel like I am ten times a better player than I would have been if I stayed here.
“I feel like I am more mature,” he added. “That’s obviously going to be the case with my age now as well. They made me go to college. They make you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to all the members of staff. They just make you become more mature.”
As for his senior debut at Easter Road, in a 1-1 draw in November 2011. “That was a long time ago,” he shrugged. “I enjoyed the moment.”
“I have never played in a derby before but a lot of my dad’s friends are Hibs fans and growing up here, I know it is a massive game,” he added. “And I know a lot of the boys in the Hearts team from Scotland squads. I keep in contact with them on Twitter. The slagging has not started yet. But I am sure there will be some before and after the game.”