'Hibs: Celtic's feeder club since 1888'. So
proclaimed a banner unfurled before Hibernian's recent clash
with Scottish champions Celtic, the visiting fans' mischievous
way of reminding their hosts of the steady stream of talent that
has flowed from east to west.
This exodus to Glasgow is not a recent phenomenon - Hibs' current manager, John Collins, made the self-same move in 1990 - but what was remarkable about the Bhoys team that finished the match at Easter Road last month was that it included four players signed directly from the Edinburgh outfit.
As Collins himself admitted recently: "We are a producing and selling club now." For years, financial problems dictated that reality, with the current Celtic quartet of Scott Brown, Chris Killen, Gary Caldwell and Derek Riordan merely the tip of the iceberg that has seen former star players such as Kenny Miller, Garry O'Connor, Ivan Sproule, Kevin Thomson and Steven Whittaker all depart Easter Road, seemingly, for bigger and better things.
Yet the fact that Hibs won that recent top-of-the-table match
with Celtic 3-2, then followed it up by beating Rangers 1-0 at
Ibrox to preserve their status as Scotland's only unbeaten
team, tells you that there is something a little special about this
self-confessed 'selling club'. As recently as 1990, it was
in danger of extinction, with debts spiralling and the chairman of
city rivals Hearts pushing relentlessly for a merger.
Thanks, however, to a policy of investing in and relying on its youth system, Hibernian have risen to become a true Scottish success story, recently announcing record profits on the back of raising nearly £10 million through the sale of players in 2007 alone.
Investing in youth
The loss of stars such as Brown and Thomson certainly did not prevent season ticket sales rocketing to 10,500 this season, and inevitably a section of those fans have clamoured for some of those millions acquired to be reinvested in the transfer market. Hibs, however, have opted for another route.
Collins has operated on a meagre budget, recruiting a clutch of players from the lower divisions of England and France, while £4.2 million has been ploughed into funding a 57-acre training academy in the Lothian countryside that will be open by the turn of the year. Not that the coach himself has any complaints. "I have had the good fortune to play for clubs who had tremendous training facilities, like Monaco, Everton and Fulham," said Collins, "but I feel this will beat them all."
Even without this magnificent facility, the Edinburgh club have proved consistently successful in replacing one generation of talented youngsters with another. So prolific has their conveyor belt of talent proved, in fact, that Celtic did not stop at poaching the cream of their rivals' players this summer - they also lured Hibs' academy director, John Park, to head up their own youth system.
Park had been in charge of a set-up at the Leith outfit that now encompasses over 5,000 youngsters from ages ten to 19, with the likes of Lewis Stevenson, Kevin McCann and Scotland's FIFA U-20 World Cup representatives Steven Fletcher, Sean Lynch and Ross Campbell emerging to atone for the loss of full internationals such as Brown and Caldwell. "The club's very good for introducing the young lads to first team training at a very early age, so it means you develop a lot more quickly," Lynch recently told FIFA.com.
Hibernian's focus on youth has also made the club inevitable beneficiaries of an established Scottish Premier League rule that stipulates three players under the age of 21 must be included in every matchday squad. The initiative recently drew praise from FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter and though it has its critics, among them Old Firm managers Gordon Strachan and Walter Smith, Collins believes it can only help bring through more players to boost an already-resurgent national team.
"I think it's healthy for Scottish football long-term," said the Hibs boss. "We are lucky we have good youngsters. We don't just put them on the bench just because they are under 21, we put them on the bench because they have quality."
Collins' success in achieving this while playing the
league's most stylish football and also, most riskily, playing
his youngsters in a variety of positions to make them
"complete players" has earned the rookie manager
justifiable plaudits, and only last week the 39-year-old rebuffed
an approach to take charge at London outfit Queens Park Rangers in
the English Championship. There is, he explained at the time, still
much to achieve at Hibernian, with plans afoot to increase the
stadium's capacity to 21,000 to satisfy demand and no end in
sight to the production line of first-rate youngsters.
"The good work behind the scenes means we will continue to produce players," Collins says. "Once in the system, young boys are caught by the Hibs bug. They see players getting in the first team at 18 and 19, and that adds a hunger and desire other clubs don't have. I already have had a 16-year-old training with the senior squad. And maybe before the end of the season we will see a 16-year-old in the first team."
And who knows? If Hibs maintain their current level of performance, we might even see that 16-year-old lifting the Scottish Premier League trophy.