Glenn Gibbons: Hibs prodigies send United warning

THREE incidents encompassing a geographical spread but linked by a common thread this week offered a striking reminder of one of Scottish football’s most neglected guidelines.

Derek Riordan celebrates with Garry O'Connor close behind. Picture: TSPL
Derek Riordan celebrates with Garry O'Connor close behind. Picture: TSPL

It is that media reports of the sudden emergence of a clutch of extravagantly gifted young players of limitless potential should be met with the kind of scepticism normally reserved for tales of alien abductions.

When the entire nest of fledgling geniuses is located at a single club, the possibility of Earthlings being clandestinely whisked off to faraway worlds becomes an even more likely occurrence than the dawning of football’s new golden age.

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This admittedly fanciful claim derives in part from the simple principle that if Scotland, as a country, has failed to produce a single, authentic top-tier footballer in the past 25 years or so, it is surely around a million-to-one (with no takers) about the messianic appearance of a raft of them, and all at the same club.

But, more than anything, the incredulity is born of experience, an aspect of reportage and criticism that too often seems to be blithely ignored by some more interested in an engaging headline than anything approaching considered judgment.

It is impossible not to wonder, for example, how this week’s developments impacted on the great swathes of people – fans, managers and professional commentators alike – who stampeded to the premature conclusion a few years ago that Hibernian Football Club had become the cradle of a generation of players who would set the world alight.

When Garry O’Connor, at 30, signed for Greenock Morton, Kevin Thomson, at 29, was shown the door by Hibs and Derek Riordan, also 30, was condemned by the Alloa manager, Paul Hartley, as not fit enough to play for his part-timers, the news – breaking on successive days – would almost certainly have been accompanied by a collective sigh over how the mighty had fallen.

The flaw in that reaction, of course, is that O’Connor, Riordan, Thomson and so-called fellow prodigies such as Ian Murray, Gary Caldwell, Scott Brown, Steven Whittaker and Steven Fletcher were never particularly mighty to begin with.

O’Connor has been arguably the most extreme example of unwarranted esteem. Some have lamented his descent into comparative ignominy and his admitted love affair with irresponsible behaviour as the most tragic because, as a player, he was The One, he had The Lot.

Well, if The Lot includes sluggish feet, a lack of spatial awareness, no appreciation of the geometry of the penalty area and angles of attack, the subtlety of a charging rhino and the near-total absence of the myriad qualities that conspire to produce a top-quality striker, he could, indeed, be considered pretty well equipped.

Riordan seemed at times to be competing with O’Connor for the title of King of the Prodigals, seemingly on a mission to be forcibly ejected and barred from every nightclub in Edinburgh. Unlike O’Connor, Riordan was unquestionably endowed with natural ball skills, but this would prove indirectly to be a hindrance, since it disguised his shortcomings – shocking lack of application, diligence and will – and convinced too many supporters that he was a serious player.

The point O’Connor, Riordan and their apologists missed was that exceptional players are endowed with packages of disparate qualities, ranging from congenital brilliance to imperishable tenacity and unrelenting commitment. Yet, when Riordan was signed by Gordon Strachan for Celtic and failed to meet the manager’s demands for the industriousness required by the modern game and was named as a substitute, a substantial number of supporters gave Strachan a hard time instead of the goldbricker on the bench.

Gary Caldwell, another of that Hibs band, has enjoyed an astonishingly rewarding career on both sides of the border, but it is impossible to recognise in him a single conspicuous feature – apart from a grossly unfair share of life’s good fortune. Veteran Hibs fans will look at his 55 Scotland appearances and wonder how Alex Edwards, Jimmy O’Rourke and the late Alan Gordon – three highly productive members of arguably the best team never to win a championship – could not muster a solitary cap between them. Down in Manchester, Sir Alex Ferguson, whose scoring statistics wherever he played would intoxicate a teetotaller, often looks at some of today’s internationalists and remains bamboozled by his own failure to wear the dark blue shirt.

He is much too respectful to say so, but it would be no surprise if one of the causes of his head-shaking were Steven Fletcher. If the former Hibs striker is said by anyone to have been a success along with Scott Brown, the claim should be met instantly with the riposte: “Compared to what?”. Fletcher may have cost Sunderland a reported £12 million, but fees can be an unreliable indicator of merit. He remains one of the least productive strikers around, with three goals from 19 appearances for his club this season, and one goal from 13 outings in a Scotland jersey.

As for Brown, his most impressive credentials are those concerning energy and commitment, worthy assets in themselves, but entirely inadequate to a midfielder at the higher levels of the game if not complemented by proper intelligence, vision and command of the killing pass.

Ian Murray, another of the heralded group at Easter Road a decade ago, went to Rangers and merely confirmed the wisdom of the late Tommy Burns’s observation that it was always easier to play against the Old Firm than it was to play for them.

What became of Hibs’ golden generation should be no surprise to anyone paying attention to the long-term deterioration in Scottish standards. But it should temper some of the superlatives currently being hurled in the direction of Jackie McNamara’s young hopefuls at Dundee United.