As he cleans Sodje’s boots, apprentice Handling waits for big break in the Hibs first team

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You get the sense he would be immeasurably happier wearing the boots of a first-team striker at Hibs rather than polishing them, but ambitious young Danny Handling does his best to remain patient for a breakthrough in professional football.

The 17-year-old striker has already spent seven years at the club and was granted three minutes of first-team fame in May, replacing the now-departed Derek Riordan in a dead rubber against Aberdeen.

If that experience whetted his appetite for senior action, he was brought back down to earth when handed the boots of striker Akpo Sodje, whose footwear Handling continues to clean in his role as first-team apprentice.

In the other half of his dual role at Hibs’ East Mains base, Handling serves as a goalscoring centre forward for the under-19 team, hoping to graduate, like his hero Steven Fletcher, whom he idolised as a young Hibs fan and who left Easter Road to join Burnley two years ago, to senior football.

“I’ve always loved being at Hibs and always felt that my best possible chance was at Hibs,” said Handling. “I’m really enjoying football at the moment, but there’s always room for improvement. It’s a high standard at 19s, to compete is difficult, and I’m sure everyone will agree that you are always looking to get better as a player.

“At the club, I would like to base myself on Garry O’Connor, to get into spaces and try to get on the ball as much as I could. I would like to play like him, but I’m not a powerful forward like him. Steven Fletcher is someone I’m probably more similar to. He was the main man when I was growing up supporting Hibs, and has probably had the most influence on me as a player.

“My dream is to play in the Champions League, but to experience even a bit of what those two have achieved would be massive. Garry O’Connor got a big move to Russia [with Lokomotiv Moscow], and Steven Fletcher is now in the Premiership [with Wolverhampton Wanderers]. He’s banging in the goals at the moment, and Garry is top goalscorer in the SPL.”

Handling has been on the books full-time at Hibs for two years now, and rarely in that time can he have seen such quality in the spread of first-team strikers before him. O’Connor, Junior Agogo, Leigh Griffiths, and Akpo Sodje all lie between the youngster and a second look-in with Colin Calderwood’s side, but he sees them not as obstacles but as targets for which to aim.

“It gives me something to look up to,” said Handling. “You see if the manager’s playing those players, you get an idea of what you want in his team.

“It’s good to know he’s giving youth a chance and willing to play players who are young. I was quite surprised when he put me on against Aberdeen, and I’m sure he’s confident in all the youth boys at the club. We definitely know we’ve got a chance.

“Because we’re at the training centre, we do see the first team on a regular basis. You speak to the boys on the way past, and you clean their boots, so you have a better bond with the players. That makes it easier – you have a connection and you can speak to them.

“If you get a chance [in the first team], you know you must be doing something right. I’m hopeful of getting another opportunity for first-team football, but everyone at under-19 is dying for that chance.”

Despite harbouring a healthy ambition for first-team football even at such a tender age, Handling’s immediate focus is on succeeding with the Hibs under-19s, a team traditionally the source of great pride to the club and one that has claimed silverware in recent seasons. David Wotherspoon and Sean Welsh are among those who have graduated to the first team squad from an under-19 outfit that won the league and cup double two years ago. Are the current crop as good?

“I would hope so, but there’s always good ability and potential at this club,” said Handling. “We always try to play good football and I would like to hope we’ve got a chance this season to replicate the success of past teams. We don’t want to seem too confident, but if we do play well we can get results.

“It’s a very strong league. Rangers have Gregg Wylde and Jamie Ness, and Hearts have Jason Holt, and hopefully all these clubs give youth a chance. In my opinion, the younger the player getting a chance, the better.”

Handling, who lives in his hometown of Haddington, was a matter of miles along the road at North Berwick High School to promote the Tesco Bank Football Challenge, where he and the rest of Hibs’ under-19 squad taught the basics of the game to primary school-age kids. The 17-year-old orchestrated training drills just yards from the pitch where he notched a hat-trick a few years beforehand as a striker for Knox Academy in a 4-3 win against their North Berwick rivals, but while that earlier chapter of his fledgling career ran through his head, one yet to be scripted was already forming.

“It was very interesting, I’m sure the under-19 boys enjoyed it and it’s an experience we won’t forget. It’s a good experience to coach kids. I’ve always said I’d like to be a coach in future, for whatever team.”

Before contemplating his long-term future, Handling, who is this week dealing with the regret that surfaced after his red card in Saturday’s derby defeat to Hearts at Riccarton – “the decision’s been made and there’s nothing I can do” – will attempt to retain a rather cooler and more level head as he looks to convert burning ambition into reality.