Forgotten four lose way in search for the Old Firm’s fairytale slipper

Greg Stewart is one of many players who have become lost on a well-trod path at Ibrox. Picture: SNS.Greg Stewart is one of many players who have become lost on a well-trod path at Ibrox. Picture: SNS.
Greg Stewart is one of many players who have become lost on a well-trod path at Ibrox. Picture: SNS.
You’re choosing an SPFL select with this one stipulation: avoid the Old Firm. No problem, you say, there are good guys playing regularly and playing well right across the division. A couple of seasons ago, the front four might have looked like this…Jake Hastie (Motherwell), Brandon Barker (Hibernian), Jordan Jones and Greg Stewart (both 

Hastie was the hottest young talent in the country at the time, a fast raider with an unerring finish. Barker was fulfilling then Hibee manager Neil Lennon’s desire for wingers and thrills. Another winger, Jones, was bringing excitement and even a title challenge back to Rugby Park, although he was greatly aided by Stewart playing just behind him as an intelligent 10.

What happened to them? They all went to Rangers. What’s become of them since? That’s a question to ponder for any player who might be tempted by a move to Ibrox before the January window closes.

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Stewart is still at Rangers and Hastie has just returned from a loan spell at Rotherham, while it has been reported that Barker and Jones might be offloaded to allow Steven Gerrard to make a signing before tomorrow’s deadline.

One thing you can say for sure about the quartet is that they are playing far less first-team football than when they first shot to prominence. They have gone from 
regular starts and rave reviews to bench-warming if they’re lucky and oblivion if they’re not.

Actually, there’s another thing you can say for sure: they’re earning more money in their obscurity, Barker reportedly being paid £10,000 a week to come on against Stranraer in the Scottish Cup.

Remember the Scottish League? That was the representative team behind the Scotland side, drawn only from the domestic scene so it couldn’t have called on Denis Law when he was playing in Italy. It could, though, have selected Law’s Torino team-mate Joe Baker when the latter was at Hibs, even though he was English, and you wonder why it didn’t.

A revived Scottish League could have great fun picking an XI from the multicultural talent on display in the country these days, and Englishman Barker, Jones who’s Irish, Hastie and Stewart would have been crowd-pleasing choices.

But not right now. They have virtually become forgotten men. Fans at other Scottish clubs – even fans at the clubs they left – will have little sympathy. They chose to go. They knew the risks.

It’s a well-trod path from the provincials to the Old Firm. The best of the rest have always been cherry-picked by Rangers and Celtic, and for the players the allure is seductive. Big crowds, big money, medals and cups – and in many cases the chance to turn out for boyhood favourites. But not all of them make it at the Old Firm. And you might wonder how Hastie, Jones and Barker were going to make it at Rangers simultaneously when they were all going to be fighting over basically the same position.

How do so many not make it? Once through the hallowed portals of Ibrox and Celtic Park, what is the secret route on to the park? The failure rate suggests it is a series of Kafka-esque labyrinths, or that it resembles an Escher drawing where you climb relentless steps only to end up right back where you started. Old Firm supporters will doubtless nod knowingly: they like to think of their clubs being daunting and dripping with mystique.

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One sure way of being snapped up by the Big Two is to play well – almost too well – against them. Jim Baxter and Alex Ferguson are two of the most famous Rangers who weren’t going to be allowed to embarrass an Ibrox audience again – the former having masterminded a sensational Raith Rovers victory in Govan while Fergie bagged a hat-trick there for St Johnstone.

Barker’s “audition” was more modest – two shots on the run within the space of a few minutes which cannoned off a Rangers post. Jones had more luck, scoring the winner for Killie in a match against Gerrard’s team, this after having signed a pre-contract to join them at the end of last season.

The pair could set off on mazy runs at Rugby Park and Easter Road and if these came to nought there might be a few groans from the crowd but also this: general acknowledgement that if you support Killie or Hibs this is sometimes the way the half-time pie crumbles. The 50,000-strong Ibrox faithful, however, are more demanding. Play for a club such as Rangers and you cannot run the ball out of the park too often. This season maybe not ever.

This week the fans have been speculating on who they might want their club to buy this window, and Hibs’ Martin Boyle has been mentioned. He has also been mentioned by Celtic supporters who will have memories of the last time they took the Hibees’ best man and the wilderness years that followed for Scott Allan.

As long as the Old Firm are around, players will want to try their luck, believing the fairytale slipper will fit them the best.