The victors’ reward for a berth in the last 16 of the little brother counterpart to the senior Champions League where no less than Real Madrid, Manchester City, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and AC Milan are already in place.
Irrespective of the outcome, the fervent hope of academy director Steve Kean is that the joined-up thinking governing Hibs’ player rearing will be evident to the 5,000-plus crowd expected at Easter Road on the evening. Kean’s dovetailing with Lee Johnson as prospects have been bled into the senior set-up in recent months should ensure the Leith faithful are encouraged by their club’s development programme. A one-off shoot-out against a Dortmund Kean describes as the “benchmark” for player production across the continent - both for output and “huge” financial investment - was earned courtesy of impressive successes over Nantes and Molde. Hibs Under-19s Scottish football’s last team standing in continental competition as a result. In turn, a number of the players central to the run have been fed into the senior set-up in brave fashion by Johnson, even while first-team form has been decidedly dodgy.
“Full credit to him, the manager has been great,” said Kean. “He was quite vocal in saying he felt there were too many in the first team squad and he wanted to move some players on, which he did, and that creates that pathway for the young boys to push in. But they have to be good enough. It is pointless saying we are going to clear the pathway and there is no quality there. We are confident inside the academy we have that. The manager has been great, he has put them on the bench and we can see the fruits when he puts them on the pitch and they have a massive effect. We want to win when we play Dortmund, and when we played Nantes and Molde. But ultimately it is not really about that but about preparing players and pushing them into the first team when they are ready. And these lads that are starting to show signs they are certainly ready.
“Josh had a big effect last week, coming on and winning a penalty, and Oscar McIntyre also got on. We also had Ethan Laidlaw and Murray Johnson, our young goalkeeper, on the bench. Murray Aitken, who was subject to a bid from an English club on deadline day, in and around it, as has Kanayo Megwa. So many of the young lads playing next Tuesday have all been part of the first-team squad. It is great to see them in and around it and, when getting on, having an effect.”
The immediate benefits are mutual. Seven of his youth squad trained with the seniors last week - this transition smooth through Kean mirroring first-team session schedules - and this exposure effectively fast-tracks them.
“When they go and train with the first team there is more intensity, they are leading towards going to fight for points,” Kean said. “As the days tick down to a matchday there is that little bit of an atmosphere, if you like. And the lads can feel that, smell that, taste that, and be a part of it. When then they drop down for a reserve game, or down another level with a youth game, they have had that intensity being with first-team players with that little different ingredient. It certainly helps because when they come back they are always that little bit sharper, there is that little bit more bite. You would be amazed how quickly they grow up with a number of first-team exposures and first-team sessions. The nature of football is that you need to grow up quickly when you are exposed to the first team. They are competing with guys for first-team places.” And this week, for a slice of European glory.