IN A senior career spanning 14 years and over 550 first-team appearances, Michael Nelson has lost count of the number of young talents he has seen shine brightly before failing miserably to fulfil their potential.
The veteran Hibs defender is determined the same fate will not befall his club’s current flavour of the month, 18-year-old Jason Cummings, whose heroics lit up the first leg of the Premiership play-off final on Wednesday night.
Cummings scored both goals in Hibs’ 2-0 win at Hamilton Accies and exposed his ebullient nature in an immediate post-match interview with Sky Sports when, describing his stunning 25-yard opener, he declared: “It was a decent zing – I opened up a tin of beans.”
Back in the dressing room, Cummings was quickly reminded by his older team-mates that there is still work to be done in Sunday’s second leg at Easter Road to ensure he can continue his development as a top-flight player next season.
“He does get kept in his place,” said Nelson with a smile. “He was put down straight after the game and I told him to keep his feet on the ground and concentrate on Sunday. It’s up to the older boys to do that, the ones who have been there and done it.
“I’ve seen a lot of players start their careers brilliantly and then fade away. They are still sitting at home somewhere now, saying they were unlucky and what a player they could have been if the manager had only liked them. So it’s important we try and keep Jason’s feet on the ground so he does not become another one of those statistics. We have to make sure he thrives and has a good career.
“His Sky interview let’s you make your own mind up about his character. That’s just Jason. His left foot is so good, he can open a tin of beans with it was what he was trying to say – but I don’t think he knows that’s what it means!
“He has heard someone else say it another time, so he has thought he will say it. The beauty of it is that he has that rawness and that naivety that nothing bothers him. After being in the situation we have been in at Hibs, when things have maybe been getting on top of some more experienced players, it does not faze Jason.
“Hopefully that will stick with him and is a quality he will keep for years to come. It will probably wear off the more he plays, but hopefully he stays with it and has a very successful career.
“You saw the variety he has got in the two goals he scored at Hamilton. They were completely different finishes – for the first, he just put his head down and absolutely smashed it from the edge of the box and for the second, he had the coolness and calmness to just dink it. They were his first goals for the first team and have been a long time coming for him. I think his performances have warranted more goals than he has actually scored. I’m delighted for him that he’s done it in such an important game and hopefully he can kick on and do it again on Sunday.”
Nelson is wary of any complacency creeping into the Hibs camp. Last season, he played for Bradford City in the English League Two play-off semi-finals when they lost the first leg 3-2 at home to Burton but turned it around with a 3-1 win on the road.
“We are certainly not counting our chickens,” added Nelson. “We don’t want to get stung on Sunday. I’ve been in play-off situations before and you don’t look back, you just look at the next game. If we win that, it’s done. We’ll only see on Sunday if the momentum has shifted in our favour.
“We were very professional from start to finish at Hamilton. They had a go at us but we stood strong and did the job. The clean sheet was just as important as the two goals.
“People had been writing us off for weeks and we hadn’t really produced anything to give people cause not to write us off. It’s been our own doing. You don’t get bad press for that long a period when it’s not warranted. It might be hard to take, but we fully deserved it.
“You can’t hide from the stats. But the league finished against Kilmarnock, so this is a different competition altogether. It’s two games to stay up and we are halfway there. We won at Hamilton and the fans were happy again. It’s that simple.
“Some fans will stick with you through thick and thin, some only back you when you’re winning. You have to make sure you win more than you lose to keep them on side. We ultimately dictate the fans’ mood so we cannot grumble and blame the fans when they are against us if we are not winning games and making them happy.
“Hopefully this will spur them on, their support at Hamilton was unbelievable. It was one of the best atmospheres I have played in since I have been here, apart from the derby sell-outs and things like that.
“To take that kind of support to a smaller away ground does help. A lot of people say the crowd does not bother them, but it does help subconsciously. You might not be thinking about it but it does spur you on, especially on a warm night like Wednesday. When you are tiring a bit, they give you impetus to carry on and see the game out.”