Our young stars to watch in 2003
IT’S hard to believe that it is barely a year since Garry O’Connor started his first match for Hibs, the teenage striker having enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top since facing Hearts at Tynecastle.
When we predicted that the youngster would be one to look out for in the future it was more with the thought of what he could achieve in the years, rather than the months, ahead.
But within the space of six months O’Connor hadn’t only made himself a regular in the Hibs first-team but had done sufficiently well to attract the attention of Berti Vogts who had no hesitation in promoting the free-scoring kid to the Scotland set-up.
While O’Connor’s rise has been spectacular, Ian Murray’s emergence from Hibs’ youth system has been just as promising if steadier, the Scotland Under-21 skipper having stamped his arrival this season with a string of important goals from midfield.
Now, of course, the Hibs fans are looking once again at the club’s youth policy, trying to spot who might follow O’Connor, Murray and, of course, Tam McManus into the first team.
STEVEN WHITTAKER, still eligible for the club’s under-18 side which has reached the quarter-finals of the SFA Youth Cup, is an obvious prospect, the youngster having already had a little taste of top flight action this season following his debut as a substitute against St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park on the final day of last season.
Whittaker impressed the Hibs fans who followed Bobby Williamson’s team to Finland pre-season, a spate of injuries giving the 18-year-old former Hutchison Vale kid perhaps more exposure to the action than he had anticipated.
During that tour Whittaker showed his versatility, playing both right and left in defence and midfield, displaying the powerful shot he packs with a tremendous effort in Vaasa which crashed back off the bar to gift O’Connor a goal.
Whittaker may be a little disappointed in that having started matches against Motherwell and Dunfermline earlier this season that he hasn’t featured in the first-team since.
But, like most managers, Williamson’s policy is to slowly blood young players, refusing to expose them too often and preferring to let them progress at their own pace.
And it is clear that midfield where experience counts for a lot is a difficult area for any youngster to break into, more so at Easter Road where Whittaker can see the likes of John O’Neil, Jarkko Wiss, Murray, Grant Brebner, Freddy Arpinon, Mathias Jack, Janos Matyus and Derek Townsley all ahead of him in the queue.
It’s no disgrace for someone of his years to be left waiting in the wings, but if Whittaker can show the same patience as Murray - and the same ability, attitude and determination to win - then he’ll have a bright future ahead of him.
Whittaker may be the star of the under-18 side at present but there are others catching the eye of Williamson who regularly takes in their matches to keep a watch on the youngsters progress.
The likes of Kevin Thomson, Scott Brown and Kevin MacDonald have already impressed but the kid singled out as the most improved player at Easter Road at the moment has to be Edinburgh boy Darren Thomson.
He may never been described as a flair player but Thomson’s commitment, dedication, hard work and willingness to listen has impressed all on the coaching staff.
Thomson can play anywhere on the left side, always an advantage for any young player, and is in his final season at under-18 level. He’s matured in recent months and brought a consistency to his play which will probably see him step up to the under-21 side in the New Year.
As always, there is a massive "cull" of young players, kids who have shown promise at under-age levels only to fall by the wayside by failing to make the breakthrough to the big time.
And, like any other young player, Thomson runs that risk. However, if he continues to make the progress he has recently and continues to show the willingness to listen and learn he has shown so far then he too may one day become the latest product of Hibs’ youth system.
By David Hardie
COLIN McMENAMIN is regarded as something of a one-trick pony around Almondvale - but Livingston coach Allan Preston believes the young striker has the potential to develop into one of the game’s real thoroughbreds.
Mention McMenamin’s name to anyone in the know and the word ‘goalscorer’ will crop up within seconds.
The 21-year-old is not renowned for anything else - but then the likes of Ally McCoist and former Lions coach John Robertson both made long and prosperous careers out of their singular talents at both club and international level.
Just 18 months ago, the 21-year-old was banging in the goals for Annan Athletic in the East of Scotland league, before Newcastle United swooped to take him south.
A year spent plundering defences in the Premiership reserve league was not enough to keep him at St James’ Park and the Lions took the opportunity to bring him back to Scotland.
McMenamin is top scorer in the SPL under-21 league and is slowly but surely edging his way into Jim Leishman and Davie Hay’s first-team plans.
He’s managed a few substitute appearances in recent weeks and found the net against Aberdeen at Pittodrie on December 21 - only for a dubious offside decision to deny him his first senior goal.
Preston is in no doubt the club have a real talent on their hands and has watched at close quarters the fledgling forward’s ability to turn games at a stroke.
He said: "Colin is a goalscorer pure and simple, which is a great habit to have.
"Time and again you don’t see him in a game and then he’ll pop up and score a goal.
"In our last under-21 game against Dunfermline he was anonymous and then hit a hat-trick within 25-minutes.
"John Robertson spoke to Bobby Robson about Colin just before we signed him. He managed to score 35 goals for Newcastle reserve team last season, but Bobby said the same thing - he does nothing all game and then pops up with a goal. He recommended that we take Colin because his chances of breaking through down there were so slim.
"He had the likes of Alan Shearer, Craig Bellamy and Shola Ameobi in front of him for a game and that was always going to make it virtually impossible for him to get near the first team."
Preston also revealed that McMenamin’s desire for goals extends to his behaviour off the park.
He added: "Colin’s currently the top scorer in the under-21 league with ten goals and that’s something he prides himself on.
"He likes wandering into the office and turning to teletext to see his name at the top of the scorers’ chart. Before our last game he had looked at the list and noticed Celtic’s Shaun Maloney had grabbed a double to move up to nine for the season - two goals ahead of himself.
"Colin clearly wasn’t happy about being nudged down the list and said he was going to get himself back up there as soon as possible.
"Sure enough, he went out there and got that hat-trick against Dunfermline to take himself into double figures and the top of the chart."
Preston is now one week into his new position as first-team coach, following Robertson’s move to the manager’s job at Inverness Caley Thistle. The promotion from his role as under-21 coach may mean he spends less time working with the club’s young prospects but he expects McMenamin to come under his charge more often as the season progresses.
He added: "At what level Colin will ultimately succeed I’m not sure. You can only ask a player to perform at their current level and to Colin’s credit he has scored goals wherever he has played.
"The next challenge for him is to break into the first team and that will be the big test.
"I’m glad he’s been involved in the first-team squad recently - he deserves the recognition. I think he is capable of taking it to first-team level but he has to keep focused and working hard.
"He gives us something different - he is a constant threat and is someone who is always liable to pop up with a goal.
"John Robertson was that sort of player - he was always in the right place at the right time in all those years he spent scoring goals for Hearts. Hibs fans will say he was lucky but you don’t get lucky as often as he did.
"Colin is certainly displaying a lot of the same traits and it will be interesting to see how far he can go."
By Graeme Croser
HAVING joined Hearts as a 14-year-old, GRAHAM WEIR longed for the day when he could pull on the famous maroon jersey for the first time in a competitive match for the top team.
That dream day arrived last season, boss Craig Levein giving him his chance as a late substitute against Aberdeen at Pittodrie just over a year ago.
However, no sooner had his dream come true than it had turned into his worst nightmare, the youngster being sent off just minutes after coming off the bench.
It must have been a chastening experience for the striker who hails from Harthill and could have had serious implications for the progress of someone highly regarded by those at Tynecastle.
The diminutive frontman, though, is made of stern stuff, and he refused to allow the events at Pittodrie to get the better of him.
Under the watchful eye of reserve coach John McGlynn, he continued to work on his game and after remaining on the fringes of the first team he made his first top-team start in the win over Motherwell at Fir Park in early March.
This season has seen him provide back-up in attack to Mark de Vries, Andy Kirk and Gary Wales, the 18-year-old grabbing his first goal for the club in the 2-0 victory over Dunfermline at Tynecastle in the fourth game of this season.
It was a proud moment for the former Scotland schoolboy internationalist and he has since gone on to make a handful of starts for Levein, who has shown time and time again that he is not afraid to give youth its chance.
And perhaps the biggest test of Weir’s fledgling career came on Boxing Day when, with both Kirk and Wales ruled out by injury, he partnered De Vries in attack against Celtic in front of 58,000 fans at Parkhead.
Despite coming up against the likes of Bobo Balde, Joos Valgaeren and Ulrik Laursen, he wasn’t afraid to go in where it hurt and he made a sterling contribution to one of the Jambos’ best displays in Glasgow for a number of years, his terrier-like performance not allowing the Celtic defence a moments rest.
The season may be coming towards the end of its first phase and already Weir, who is still eligible for the under-18 team, has shown he is a valuable member of Levein’s squad.
The Gorgie chief is well aware of the teenager’s potential, having secured him on a long-term contract which will keep him at Tynecastle until 2006.
When handing him his new four-year deal last November, Levein said: "He has a great attitude which is the main thing, but he is also willing to work his backside off.
"Of course, he also has ability as he would not have been given a new contract if that wasn’t the case."
Providing Weir continues to listen and learn in the months ahead then there is every chance he will provide some stiff competition for those who may have possession of the jerseys.
Competition for places is vital at any club and only on Sunday there he made the most of his latest opportunity when he came on for the injured Kirk against Dundee at Dens Park with a quarter-of-an-hour to play and scored a late goal to give Hearts a vital 2-1 win and three important points - the Jambos’ first league win at the home of the Dark Blues since March 1994.
By Paul Kiddie
STEVEN O’HARA and Marc Warren provided the tartan touch when Great Britain and Ireland’s amateur golfers retained the Walker Cup with a thumping 15-9 victory over their American counterparts at Sea Island, Georgia, in 2001.
The latest instalment in the biennial clash will be held at Ganton in Yorkshire in early September and among the Scots in contention is DAVID INGLIS.
The Glencorse youngster, pictured above, returned from his US college last summer and made his mark in a big way on the domestic circuit, capping a consistent run of form by winning the East of Scotland Open at Lundin Links.
He earned a place in the Great Britain and Ireland training squad for the Walker Cup and will join up with the rest of its members in April for a get-together.
Inglis enjoyed an outstanding junior career, the highlight being his victory in the British Boys’ Championship at Hillside in 2002 and I expect him to go from strength to strength in 2003.
By Martin Dempster
ROSS HAY has lived and breathed ice hockey ever since he was a toddler.
Now, the Edinburgh-born player is set to burst into the fast-lane following a string of fine performances.
Hay has recently been promoted to Edinburgh Capitals’ top attacking line-up, and although he is unlikely to realise his full potential until he is around 25 and he currently requires to add more aggression into his game, he has caught the eye because of his vision, use of the puck and all-round ability.
He works full time and training and games are supplemented by at least two visits to the gym every week.
It’s a tough schedule but he is determined to make his name in the British National League.
Ross’ brother Neil, another forward, plus talented young defenceman Daniel McIntyre and former Scottish Eagles blue-liner Paddy Ward are other Capitals hopefuls to watch in 2003.
By Nigel Duncan
These kids can make their mark
ALLY HOGG is the youngest player ever to score a try for Edinburgh Rugby but that is far from being the only reason why, entering the World Cup year of 2003, this exceptionally talented back row forward could yet join the elite group who have been capped by Scotland before their 21st birthday.
Elite? How else to refer to a ‘club’ that includes - amongst others - Gregor Townsend , Jim Renwick , Andy Nicol and Craig Chalmers ?
As he prepares to leave teenage-dom behind on January 20, Stirling County-reared Hogg, pictured right, is showing all the hallmarks of going on to become one of the greats himself.
What are the qualities that make the 6ft 3in and 16st ace special?
Firstly, from the moment we first met I was impressed by Hogg’s straightforwardness and sheer enthusiasm for the game.
The occasion was the announcement last March of Scotland’s team for the World Youth Championships which Ally was to captain.
There was, however, one nagging issue which also had to be addressed which was a club-versus-country tug of loyalty since Stirling had an important Premiership clash with Boroughmuir later in the week.
As pressure was mounted within Murrayfield for Scotland’s young starlets to be mothballed in preparation for the global tournament, Hogg gave a first glimpse of his maturity by addressing the matter and, perhaps more importantly, going out to demonstrate he was his own man while respecting the concerns of the authorities for his welfare.
The upshot was that Hogg turned out for his relegation threatened club (they were to escape the drop) AND inspired Scotland to a best-ever placing of fifth in the World Championships when, along the way, they defeated France and England Colts.
A legacy remains as it is necessary to spend only a few minutes in the company of some of Hogg’s charges on that trip to be aware of the esteem in which the skipper is still held both for leadership qualities and all-round abilities.
And here my sense of anticipation at one day hopefully seeing Hogg fulfil all his glorious potential gains momentum ...
For not only has Hogg taken the step up into the pro ranks after Evening News-sponsored Edinburgh swooped during the summer but he is coming on leaps and bounds through rubbing shoulders on a daily basis with three world-class tutors.
I make no apologies for referring in that way to the current first string Edinburgh back row of Todd Blackadder , Simon Taylor and Marty Leslie .
Each has already scaled the heights to the extent that they have a wealth of information to pass on either verbally or by example - and what is certain is that Ally Hogg has a voracious appetite for any titbits of knowledge enhanced also when he was taken on Scotland’s Test/developmental tour of North America in 2002.
Already the dividends of such policies are being seen in abundance and it was typical of Hogg that he should mark his first appearance in an Edinburgh jersey - a 71st minute substitutes role against Swansea at Meadowbank - with a try.
From there he went on to make a first start in an away win over Ebbw Vale while the Heineken European Cup - the continent’s blue riband event - has seen him debut from off the bench and emerge all the stronger for the outings. Watching Scotland coaches surely couldn’t fail to be impressed while even a back row as majestic as the current Edinburgh unit, if they were not already feeling Hogg’s hungry breath down the back of their necks, will have to dig a bit deeper.
What’s more the annual beanfeast that is the Six Nations Championship is almost upon us and maybe that is where Hogg, already an A cap whose three midweek tour outings for Scotland in North America yielded two tries, will come into his kingdom?
Increasingly, I believe this could be the case.
What’s certain is that as long as there are players like Ally Hogg coming up through the ranks - at pace, too - then the structure of Scottish rugby can be relied upon to be serving its purpose with the overall future of the great game in outstanding hands.
By Bill Lothian
WHEN a boxing manager and promoter who between them have progressed the careers of world champions like Lennox Lewis, Naseem Hamed, and Scott Harrison, sing the praises of a young prospect with only three professional fights under his belt it pays to listen.
Which is why I was all ears back in October when Frank Maloney and Frank Warren hailed Edinburgh light-welterweight GARY YOUNG.
Although overshadowed somewhat by the peerless form of British super-featherweight champion Alex Arthur, both Warren and Maloney stressed they thought Young, pictured, has a big future.
"Gary Young is a superb prospect," said Maloney. "Anyone who can punch like this kid does when he stopped his first two opponents inside the distance (Irishman Paul McIlwaine and Sheffielder Daniel Thorpe - both stopped early inside the distance) is always going to have a big future in pro boxing."
While Frank Warren agreed saying: "Gary reminds me in two ways of Alex Arthur. Like Alex, Gary is a likeable guy outside the ropes but once that bell goes then he becomes a mean son of a gun. I really rate him a lot."
Yet the praise hasn’t turned Young’s head at all. "I’ve a lot to learn about pro boxing but fighting at shows involving Alex Arthur and Scott Harrison at Braehead Arena was a tremendous thrill as it made me all the more determined to follow in their footsteps," he said.
"That was my inspiration when I fought Kevin Jones who was the reigning Welsh champion at Belfast’s Maysfield Arena in my last fight.
"Jones had just come off a ten-round bout and was much more experienced than I am but I still outpointed him over four rounds.
"And I was even more thrilled when British welterweight champion Neil Sinclair from Belfast complimented me on my performance saying how good he thought I was. It’s moments like that which make all the hard running and conditioning, the daily drive from Gilmerton to Dalmarnock gym in the east side of Glasgow to work out under my coach Peter Harrison and the tough sparring sessions with guys like British title contender Kevin McIntyre and Englishman Terry Fletcher, all worth while."
Young says his big priority for 2003 is to repay the faith paid to him by Maloney and Warren.
"Firstly, I’m rated No.25 at present in Britain so a big priority is to have six good learning fights at least this year on big shows at Braehead or similar venues.
"Secondly, I hope that my form will inspire even more local support for me at ringside just as Alex Arthur already attracts a tremendous following in Edinburgh.
"But most of all, I aim to live up to the confidence shown in me by Frank Warren and Frank Maloney by moving onward and upwards in the British ratings in 2003."
Having watched Gaelic medal winner Gary Young box man and boy I too share Frank Maloney and Frank Warren’s confidence that 2003 could be a red letter year for the promising young light-welterweight from Gilmerton.
By Brian Donald
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