Hibs cast net far and wide in search for stars

Alex Harris, scorer last Saturday against Falkirk, came to Hibs from The Edinburgh Academy. Picture: Greg Macvean
Alex Harris, scorer last Saturday against Falkirk, came to Hibs from The Edinburgh Academy. Picture: Greg Macvean
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The Capital’s fee-paying schools have never been viewed as breeding grounds for young football players, the likes of Edinburgh Academy, Heriot’s and Watson’s all more closely identified with rugby stars such as Mike Blair, Andy Irvine and Gavin Hastings.

But Hibs teenager Alex Harris has broken the mold, the 18-year-old thought to be the first since Alan Gordon in the 1970s to have progressed from one of the independent educational establishments – in his case Edinburgh Academy – to pull on a green and white shirt.

However, hard on the heels of Harris, the name on everyone’s lips following his man-of-the-match performance as Pat Fenlon’s side staged an incredible fightback from three goals down against First 
Division Falkirk to claim their place in the Scottish Cup final for the second season in succession, are others who have followed a similar less than traditional route towards professional football.

As well as Harris, the Easter Road outfit have David Paul (Watson’s), Max Todd (Heriot’s), Ryan Baptie (Clifton Hall) and Jonny Court (Stewart’s Melville) all on their books not, insisted James McDonaugh, the club’s Head of Academy Coaching, the result of any decision by Hibs to target Edinburgh’s private schools, but simply pure coincidence.

Like other clubs, Hibs have a network of scouts who work unceasingly, taking in all sorts of matches in their quest to identify those rough diamonds whose talents can be polished through years of coaching into what they hope will eventually become first team stars.

Although he appears simply to have come from nowhere, Harris has actually been with Hibs since the age of nine, forced to make the decision between rugby – having scored a try at Murrayfield as Edinburgh Academy won the Scottish Schools Under-15 Cup – and football, emerging as the jewel in the crown of the Easter Road club’s current under-20 side.

Paul, Baptie and Todd have also been playing at that level this season, the latter making his first start in the 5-1 defeat of Kilmarnock on Tuesday night having only recently turned 17 and only time will tell whether they will follow in the footsteps of Harris.

Admitting it was unusual to have four boys from that particular environment, McDonaugh said: “It’s just coincidental. It’s not as if we have gone to their schools to find players, sent coaches into their playgrounds. We have found players who just so happen to have that background.

“They’ve been playing for boys’ club teams, we’ve watched them, liked what we have seen and only afterwards you learn which schools they are at. But it doesn’t matter where they are from, what they look like or anything else, it’s the fact we think they are good footballers.

“There are two arguments as to which is more important, those who find them and those who coach them. For me talent identification is massive, if we can get the right players we have a great opportunity to coach them and improve them.”

Then, McDonaugh explained, it was all about coaching the youngsters through the various age levels, the hardest being making that step into the first team with many factors having a bearing in the years in between, the upshot being that many of those young hopefuls will fall by the wayside.

Football, of course, was once seen as the province of youngsters who’d grown up playing on the streets of council housing schemes where all you needed was a couple of jumpers and ball. Rugby, on the other hand, was regarded as the preserve of those who attended private schools, those generally seen as more affluent.

McDonaugh, though, believes the change in society through the years has seen a shift in such perceptions, long gone are the days thanks to the huge increase in car ownership of street football, many schools no longer have teams covering every age group from first year to sixth while the advent of computer games and the like have undoubtedly had an impact on participation in sport.

He said: “The game, too, has changed. When we were youngsters if you were going to go full-time you had to leave school at the end of fourth year at 16. Now they can stay on to sixth year. Alex, for example, did a bit of both last year. He split his week, coming into the club for two or three days with the remainder spent at school, He had the best of both worlds.”

And although he accepts that at one time there may have been an “us and them” type of attitude between youngsters coming from such different backgrounds, McDonaugh insisted that, too, has long gone. He said: “There is, of course, friendly banter between all the boys, but I can honestly say I have never heard anyone talk of people going to a better school.

“Kids are kids, they don’t really bother about things too much, they just get on with it. In any case, I would not let it happen. In our dressing-room we are pretty strict, we have a code of discipline, standards, and rules are set down but we’ve never had a problem.

“We have a great bunch of boys who have been there for years, a welcoming environment regardless of where they are from and whatever background they may have. It’s important we keep that.”

Proof of such togetherness, McDonaugh claimed, came when Harris turned up to watch the Under-20s on Tuesday night, the winger happily packing away his team-mates’ dirty kit after the match while they showered. He said: “Alex took a bit of stick, the boys asking if he had a pen with him as he’d be getting asked for autographs. They were joking that having scored a try at Murrayfield and a goal at Hampden they were taking bets on him winning Wimbledon this summer and the Open at Muirfield.

“But there’s not an ounce of jealously among them, no green-eyed monsters. They are a tight group, all very friendly. In fact, it’s now April and we haven’t had one fight on the training ground. All the lads are genuinely delighted for Alex, each of them is thinking ‘I can do that as well’.”