Hibs: Bill Hendry tears up rule book with his vision for youth

HIBS have already earned an enviable reputation for producing some of Scotland's most promising young football talent – but in future the Easter Road club could become as well known as the breeding ground for top referees.

The club's Under-19 squad has become the first in Scotland to sign up to a 26-hour SFA course to educate them in the laws of the game, opening the way for those who may not make the grade to remain in football by becoming a match official.

It's all part of Hibs' groundbreaking community engagement initiative which has also seen the youngsters train as SFA coaches, working with local primary schools and Lothian Hibernian – players with learning difficulties.

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The Edinburgh outfit's efforts, developed and implemented by youth academy manager Bill Hendry, have been recognised with a prestigious award, Hibs scooping the "Best Community Initiative" at the Clydesdale Bank Premier League Awards ceremony. But while naturally delighted with the plaudit, Hendry hopes the initiatives will also help dispel the belief that young footballers live a cosseted life, training for a couple of hours each day before retiring to the golf course or snooker hall.

Although he acknowledges the priority is to identify, nurture and develop young talent for John Hughes' first-team squad, Hendry insists Hibs have a wider responsibility to those who see that particular dream fade. "We have a reputation, not only in Scotland but down south, for bringing through our own young players. But for every Steven Fletcher, David Wotherspoon, Derek Riordan or Scott Brown there are many who don't make it.

"There's a massive fall-out in football. In other walks of life there's a success rate of 95 per cent of apprentices becoming plumbers, joiners and so on but in football it's almost the reverse.

"Only a select few achieve that pinnacle but hopefully the rest will remain in football at some level and for the majority that means part-time. What we are trying to do with the coaching and referee coaches is to give them other career choices while remaining in football.

"I don't expect all of them to pick it up but it's a safety net for those who unfortunately do not manage to make it."

Pointing out how leading official Craig Thomson has made a career out of refereeing, Hendry cited another referee, Euan Norris, who took charge as Hibs beat Rangers to lift the SFA Youth Cup at Hampden as another perfect example of someone remaining in football in a different capacity having seen his own hopes of becoming a professional player evaporate.

A former English teacher, Hendry said: "I remember Euan playing for the Lanarkshire select team but he wasn't good enough to make it at professional level so he chose the alternative of refereeing and is now doing so in the SPL.

"It was a touch ironic he turned up as the referee for the Youth Cup final – not that he gave us any assistance in winning it. But the point is Euan will be 27 or 28, which shows the kids they are still young enough to consider doing likewise.

"You'd also hope the boys will not only enjoy a better understanding of the laws of the game but the decisions a referee goes through and how difficult it is in some instances in doing so."

His past experiences in dealing with teenagers obviously alerted Hendry to the reaction some of his young charges may have to the initiative implemented but, he insisted, the kids had embraced both the coaching and refereeing courses with enthusiasm.

While young players still have duties to conduct both around Hibs' impressive East Mains Training Centre and Easter Road, Hendry insisted the days of sweeping terraces and washing the cars of management and senior players were past.

He said: "Our aim is to develop our youth players not only on the pitch but to allow them to take their place in society as well-rounded individuals who have an awareness of their social responsibility. In saying that, it doesn't deflect from our principle function of an academy which is to produce players for the first team."

Former Hibs stars Keith Wright and Neil Orr conducted the coaching courses for the youngsters who have since been working with primary school children and Lothian Hibernian, a disabled sports group of around 60 who meet at Meadowbank every Wednesday.

Hendry said: "The disability tends to be learning difficulties but it's opened a window to them on another part of society, they've realised these people love football every bit as much as they do.

"They've come back both from that and the schools telling me they've really enjoyed it. Using professional players to offer coaching inspires young people and encourages participation while building better relationships with the local community.

"Everyone loves to be put on a pedestal but at the same time hopefully they realise that being put on a pedestal brings a responsibility, to conduct themselves in an appropriate and responsible manner. And hopefully in the longer term it leads to a greater sense of maturity and, dare I say it, we'd hope their exploits in football remain on the back pages and not the front pages of the national media."