As he proudly watched eight of his youth academy protégées graduate to Hibs boss Pat Fenlon’s first-team squad, James McDonaugh was suddenly struck by the thought: “How do you follow that?”
It’s going to be a daunting task for the Easter Road outfit’s head of academy coaching, having played a part over the past few years in putting Alex Harris, Danny Handling, Ross Cadlwell, Jordon Forster, Sammy Stanton, Bradley Donaldson, Dean Horribine and David Gold on the first rung to what he hopes will be successful careers.
But today McDonaugh insisted he’s up for the challenge as he begins steering the latest intake of young hopefuls in the same direction, while admitting it will be nigh on impossible to repeat the remarkable achievement of the past few months, arguing that to have so many step up at the one time is the exception rather than the rule.
He said: “There is that bit thinking ‘how do you follow that’, but you have to try. You could easily say ‘that’s brilliant’ and stand back and watch them, but you want to try again. This year was quite an exciting time for me because I had a lot of those players for the best part of five years, which you don’t really get as a youth coach.
“I have kind of grown up with them a wee bit and they have grown with me. Now it is about starting again with a young group. What we have is a bit of time because of their age. They have time on their side which is good. Already you can tell they are not of the standard, obviously, as those who have moved up, so we are going to have to show a bit of patience, help them along and I am sure one or two will get there in the end.”
At a club renowned for producing home-grown talent, McDonaugh has been aware of the debate among some fans as to the value of Hibs’ £5 million training centre at East Mains, the point having been made that the “golden generation” of Garry O’Connor, Derek Riordan, Kevin Thomson, Scott Brown and Steven Whittaker made the breakthrough without having the advantage of such lavish facilities. As McDonaugh pointed out, though, there has been something of a state of flux manager-wise at Easter Road with John Collins’ shock resignation within 24 hours of East Mains being formally opened being followed in quick succession by Mixu Paatelainen, John Hughes, Colin Calderwood and now Pat Fenlon in the hot-seat.
Changes, too, were made in the academy set-up, with McDonaugh replacing Alistair Stevenson, but now, with Fenlon beginning his second full season in charge while he himself is two-and-a-half years into his own job, he believes that continuity will bear further fruit.
He said: “A lot of people use that phrase ‘conveyor belt’ and everyone wants that, but it’s not as easy as that. I think if you ask any manager they’d be delighted with just one good one coming through to the first team, not someone who will make his debut and play a few games but someone who will hold down a first-team place.
“Obviously we are looking to be a bit more greedy than that. I’m pretty sure there won’t be eight coming through next season, but if you get one or two then one or two the next year again then over a period of time it’s still a very good number. There has been a lot spoken about the training centre and how we produced players without it, but the club has made a fantastic investment and everyone here appreciates it.
“It takes time. There have been a lot of changes at the club over a period of time, the manager, for example, has changed a number of times and even me taking over from Alistair means there’s been change at the academy. When a new manager comes in he needs to get results quickly, but perhaps things have settled down a bit – the manager must have liked them and opportunities have come.”
While delighted to see so many of his young charges make the step up, McDonaugh is well aware that doesn’t guarantee any of them instant stardom, as evidenced by the fact David Wotherspoon’s departure for St Johnstone last week means that of the under-19 side which enjoyed League and Cup success just a few years ago, only Callum Booth remains at the club – and he’s set for another season out on loan.
And, he agreed, it was up to each individual to go on and carve out a career for himself. He said: “The likes of Alex, Danny, Brad and Sammy are still eligible to play under-20 football this season and if we still had them I think we’d have a fantastic team, perhaps capable of winning the [Under-20] league.
“But we are not in the game to win that league, we are in it to get them into the first team and, in my eyes, they are now in that first-team group. One or two might be regulars, one or two might go out on loan or they might be squad players but it’s up to them whether they take their chance as they are certainly under the manager and Jimmy Nicholl now.
“Moving from the youth changing-room to the first team changing-room is a big step, they have to be able to stand on their own two feet, but it was pleasing to have each of them at my door talking about the season they’ve had and how they feel they have improved and thanking the coaches for that. What gives you job satisfaction is seeing those boys going on to play first-team football.”
So how does McDonaugh go about even attempting to emulate such an impressive achievement? The answer is quite simple – more of the same, as he looks forward to working with a beefed-up squad, one which will number 20 rather than 15, again, he insists, an investment in the future by the club.
Having lost so many youngsters, the net has been cast far and wide to augment those kids who will be stepping up from lower age levels with Tom Gardiner recruited from Spurs, Edinburgh boy Taylor Hendry returning to the Capital from Ipswich, while Cody Mulhall and Gareth McCaffrey have arrived from Ireland.
McDonaugh said: “There’s perhaps something more special about getting a local boy who might be a supporter, but I have always said it doesn’t matter where they come from.
“Cody and Gareth have been capped for their country, but they are just turning 17 and have never been at a professional club, so it is a big step and it would be unfair asking big things of them in such a short space of time. Then people say because Tom was with Spurs he must be a player, but what we see in each of them is potential.
“If they were ready for the first team then the manager would be signing them and that’s not the case. We’ll be following the same sort of programme as in the past and if they take on board the information they are given, work hard and do things properly, then they will have a good chance.”