AS HE travelled on Hibs’ team coach to Motherwell, 18-year-old Steven Whittaker had his fingers crossed he might just sneak a place on the bench at Fir Park.
But just an hour before kick-off the midfield starlet was stunned - and delighted - to be told by boss Bobby Williamson he’d be starting his first match for Hibs.
And those 90 minutes - which earned Hibs their first points of the season after four successive defeats - marked the end of the first stage of Whittaker’s meteoric rise since arriving at Easter Road barely two years ago.
Highly-rated by the backroom staff at the club, Whittaker made his first-team debut as a substitute against St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park on the final day of last season before impressing Williamson sufficiently in pre-season training to be taken on tour to Finland where he again excelled.
Whittaker was the first to admit he didn’t play as well as he could have in the 2-0 win over Motherwell, but now he’s hoping it will prove to be a springboard to greater things.
He said today: "It’s been quite a rise since I joined Hibs straight from Lasswade High School at the age of 16 when I was given a one-year contract.
"I’d been playing for Hutchison Vale and Star A and had gone down to Manchester City and Coventry City when I was younger although nothing really came of it.
"I was pleasantly surprised to be taken on the pre-season tour of Finland and to play in two of the four matches which was perhaps a bit more than I expected although, of course, we did have a few injuries while Ulises de la Cruz and Ulrik Laursen’s moves to Aston Villa and Celtic were on the go.
"I played in our under-21s first game of the season against Kilmarnock at the beginning of last week and did quite well and I think that maybe swung the gaffer’s mind to put me in the squad for Motherwell.
"I was hoping to maybe get a place on the bench so I was a bit surprised but very happy to be told I was playing.
"There was a bit of pressure on us all given that results hadn’t gone our way in the previous four matches but the boss didn’t single me out for any special treatment, he simply gave the usual team talk and asked us to try our hardest as usual.
"I had a few butterflies in my stomach when we went out but I tried to enjoy myself and to play as well as I could.
"I was happy enough with my performance but I know I can play better than I did.
"The fact the boss decided to play me in such a big game shows he has belief in my ability and to see he has such faith in me helped tremendously.
"He has a good relationship with the players, he gets on with everyone and the young lads at Easter Road know they are going to get their chance if they prove they are good enough.
"We also had Allan Dempsie in the side at Motherwell and although Ian Murray seems to have been around for years people tend to forget that he’s still only 21, as is Tam McManus."
Whittaker, who is still eligible for Hibs’ under-18 side having celebrated his 18th birthday in June, was also delighted that his parents, Yvonne and Gordon, were there on his big day.
He said: "They’ve watched me play all my life but they didn’t know I’d be starting the game. I’d told them I hoped to be on the bench so they were just as delighted as me to see me run out for the kick-off." And Whittaker was even happier when a glory double from ex-Motherwell star Derek Townsley secured a much-needed victory.
He said: "As you can imagine, the dressing room was a very happy place afterwards with everyone congratulating each other.
"Hopefully we can now get our season under way with more results and points on the board to lift us away from the foot of the table."
Whittaker is rated so highly at Easter Road he was given the responsibility of delivering set-pieces from the wide areas, underlining Williamson’s faith in his ability.
Williamson said: "Steven was in on merit, he did very well in the previous Under-21 match and he gives us a balance in midfield.
"He is a talented lad with a good right foot and a good left foot. He’s prepared to have a go and works very hard for the team.
"He’ll get forward and he can work the crosses in from both sides of the park with either foot. He’s certainly got a bright future ahead of him if he keeps his feet on the ground."
Goal hero Townsley was also impressed by the contribution of Whittaker - and 19-year-old Dempsie. He said: "Sometimes you can ask too much of young players when they are thrust into the team when things aren’t going too well but both Steven and Allan did really well."
HIBS’ under-18 match against Rangers tomorrow will take place at Fauldhouse (11am kick-off).