There’s been a furious debate as to the merits of Hibs’ state-of-the-art training centre among some quarters of the Easter Road support, sparked by what has been perceived by some as a lack of young talent emerging from East Mains.
Overlooking the fact the £5 million establishment on the outskirts of Tranent provides facilities many other SPL clubs can only dream of, some have questioned whether it has proved value for money, pointing to how Hibs managed to rear that golden generation which flourished under Tony Mowbray with the most basic of amenities.
Admittedly, since the likes of Garry O’Connor, Derek Riordan, Steven Whittaker, Kevin Thomson, Scott Brown and Steven Fletcher first pulled on a Hibs shirt, that flood of young talent has slowed to something of a trickle with, until recently, only Lewis Stevenson – now the club’s longest-serving player – Paul Hanlon and David Wotherspoon regarded as home-grown although, of course, Thomson has, like O’Connor, Riordan and Ian Murray before him, returned for a second spell.
Such statistics may support those who ask what has happened to the club’s renowned youth system, although the emergence in recent months of Danny Handling, Alex Harris and Ross Caldwell has somewhat undermined their stance.
But, as far as Hanlon, a regular in the first team since the age of 17 and now with 170 games under his belt, is concerned, Hibs’ happy knack of spotting and nurturing some of the country’s best young players has never been in doubt, the former Scotland Under-21 skipper insisting there are many factors governing whether or not a kid is capable of making the giant step into the top flight.
Hanlon himself was one of a group of youngsters of whom much was expected, a member of the club’s under-19 squad in 2008/09 which swept to an unprecedented league and cup double, although, by the time the silverware was secured, he’d already been promoted to Mixu Paatelainen’s first team, making his debut in the new manager’s very first game in charge.
Today, though, only Wotherspoon can regularly be seen in action at Easter Road, although both Callum Booth and Scott Smith remain on Hibs’ books but are currently on loan at Livingston and Dumbarton respectively, while others such as Thomas Flynn, Scott Taggart and Lee Currie continue to play with Scottish Football League clubs and Sean Welsh will make a return to the SPL next season with First Division champions Partick Thistle.
Admitting Hibs fans have perhaps had their judgment clouded by that scintillating young team of almost a decade ago, Hanlon said: “I think that side was the exception rather than the rule. Some supporters probably thought that would happen year after year, but in reality the chances of it happening again are very slim.
“We had a great under-19 squad that year and the boys deservedly got a lot of praise, but it was always going to be difficult for all of those who were in the under-19 side I played in to get into the first team.”
Hanlon cites a variety of reasons as to why only a relative few of those seen as rising stars in their teens make it, in Hibs’ case the well-documented struggles of the past few seasons and the management merry-go-round making it difficult for the majority to progress.
“David Wotherspoon got the chance to play right back under John Hughes and established himself in the first team and I believe a few more might have been able to do so had they got the chance to stake a claim. But it is hard for a manager to throw young boys straight from the under-19s into the SPL when the team isn’t doing so well. They tend to go with experience when times are tough and perhaps that’s one reason why not so many have progressed over the last few years, although their ability was never in doubt.
“Sean wasn’t helped by the injuries he suffered. There was no doubt he was good enough, but he’s moved to Partick and he seems to have done really well.
“Others are still playing and since then other youngsters such as Darren McCormack have made the breakthrough but moved on.”
As such, Hanlon fully appreciates the break he enjoyed.
“I was only 17, Mixu had just come in as manager and for his first game, a Scottish Cup tie against Inverness Caley, he had a problem at left back with both David Murphy and Lewis injured. I’d been training with the first team squad a few times, but I didn’t expect to play. It was a bit of a shock.
“Mixu didn’t say too much to me, just to play my normal game. Caley tried to exploit my inexperience. I was up against Don Cowie, but I seemed to do quite well, the adrenaline got me through. I had Rob Jones inside me to talk me through it and Dean Shiels, who scored a hat-trick, in front of me.”
Hanlon’s promotion saw him miss out on two under-19 winners’ medals, but there are no regrets on that front. He said: “I went to Hampden to cheer the boys on against Rangers in the SFA Youth Cup final, but when you come into full-time football from school, the aim is to play first-team football.
“I got that chance much younger than expected, but I’ll always be grateful for that opportunity.”
Having made the daunting move to the first team all by himself, Hanlon believes the latest academy “graduates” – Handling, Harris and Caldwell – will be able to support each other. “The three of them are inseparable, they are always going around together, especially Danny and Ross. That will make it a lot easier for them, although they’ve settled in brilliantly.
“Danny and Ross have been around the first team for much of the season with Alex joining them more recently, but all three have done well, they’ve been given the chance and taken it.
“At that age, it can be nerve-wracking stepping up, but you watch what different players do in preparing for games, how they approach training and look after themselves, all sorts of things like that to see what you can pick up.
“But they aren’t the only ones. There’s the like of Bradley Donaldson, Jordon Forster, Paul Grant and Dean Horribine all desperate for the chance and if they get it then I’m sure they’ll make an impact.”
The emergence of Handling, Caldwell and Harris may have given the Hibs support a lift and, hopefully, a glimpse of what they’ll bring to Pat Fenlon’s team in the near future, but, as Hanlon is well aware, their presence and the impending arrival of others brings pressure to bear on those who may take their first-team place for granted.
“Football is a team game and we all want to win together, but it can also be a selfish game because everyone wants to be in that starting XI. The young boys coming in freshens the place up, but they aren’t there just to make up the numbers, they are also wanting to play.
“No-one can look on their place as being guaranteed. You have to produce the goods on match-day to stay in the team.
“Having said that, as experienced players you also want to help them as well. Big Rob and Chris Hogg were always great to me and, in the past couple of seasons, James McPake has been there to help. But as much as you want to help the youngsters along, you know they will be looking for the chance to take your position so it’s up to me to keep them out.”