SOME players are just late bloomers. Having been a promising youth player, when the time came to dish out professional contracts, Jason Cummings was discarded by his boyhood heroes Hearts.
While guys he came through the ranks with at the Gorgie club have made their first team debuts for the Tynecastle club, he was forced to get a job as a gardener. But he never stopped cultivating his dream of making it as a professional footballer.
In the summer he was given another chance, this time with Hibs, and the green shoots of recovery are there for all to see.
He made his SPFL debut as a substitute against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at the start of November and, just over a month later, he was starting against St Johnstone. Since then he has been a regular for Terry Butcher, with his pace giving the opposition a torrid time and his own side more options. It’s an opportunity he appreciates more than ever.
“Definitely. Most of the boys here came straight from school. I didn’t and I don’t take this for granted – I know what it’s like in the real world. I’d struggle to get a job if I left here again.
“When I was a gardener it’s just like a bang average job. All my mates were doing jobs like that.
“I was getting up at half seven in the morning pulling out weeds, getting muddy hands and sitting in a stinky van. Coming in here every morning I’m doing what I love – playing football. That was my dream since I was a boy. I wouldn’t fancy going back to do that so that’s why I’m trying to make the most of this chance.”
A former Tynecastle High School pupil, Cummings grew up in a Hearts family but, after a troubled couple of seasons due to knee injuries, the Gorgie club passed up the chance to keep him. The 18-year-old added: “I was at Hearts for around five years before that. I started off at Hutchie [Hutchison Vale boys club], then went to Hearts and then ended up back at Hutchie afterwards. I was never full-time [at Hearts]. I went in during holidays but I never signed a contract. I got a taste of it but I got released after getting injured.
“I was raised a Jambo but I don’t look at their results any more. When they let me go I lost a bit of respect for the club. They just pied me! Most of my family are Hearts fans, that’s just the way it is though – you can’t pick your family. But it’s good that my uncle and a few others are Hibs fans so I’m starting to change sides. I now go to my uncle’s for tea!”
The setback was a terrible blow to his morale but he never gave up the game he loved and was soon knocking in a handful of goals every time he took to the pitch for Hutchison Vale.
“I’d work hard during the day and then get ready and go to training at night. I think I scored nine in one game. It was too easy for me – I was just chilling during matches. I was noticeable at that level.
“I don’t know if a scout spotted me first but James [McDonaugh, Hibs U20 coach] came to most of my matches for Hutchie. That’s why I could tell I was wanted here. There were a few shouts from other clubs.”
He spent a week on trial with this afternoon’s opponents Celtic but said he always felt like an outsider and was happy to turn down the chance to go back for a second trial when Hibs came in. “And I went on trial with Dunfermline and I also went down on trial to Huddersfield as well.
“Hearts actually wanted to sign me again but Hibs was the best option. I got a two-year youth contract so I’ve got this year and next year and the manager isn’t scared to give young players their chance and he makes you feel good about yourself. It’s a huge step. For example, you can now play in front of 30,000 supporters instead of only a couple. And I’m now playing against players who I used to watch on TV. It’s crazy really.”
This afternoon will be Cummings’ second outing against Celtic, after appearing as a 63rd-minute sub when the capital side suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat in December.
He is relishing every game and offers the Hibs groundstaff plenty of plaudits for the condition of the pitches at the East Mains training centre as well as the venue for today’s tussle, Easter Road.
“I used to make [the pitches] look like Wembley as well. That’s what I said – if they let me go I’ll happily be the club gardener so I can stay here and be with the boys. But, gardening wasn’t really the career for me. My mum was always saying to me ‘you’re going to have to get a career’ but I always said I was going to keep in at the football and try to make it. It’s hard to make it in football but I kept telling her I would and it’s great to now be here playing for Hibs.”