Hearts were for real. Ten games into the 2005-06 Scottish Premier League season, the Tynecastle…
You hear the phrase ‘golden generation’ a lot in football these days. Just about every national team seems to have had one, with success on the pitch an inconsequential factor. Take Belgium, for instance. The current crop of Belgium internationals are often described as a ‘golden generation’: not because they’ve cemented their place in the history books by lifting major honours, but because they have a particularly talented generation of players all progressing through the youth ranks, reaching their peak around the same time.
So in order for a crop of players to be considered a ‘golden generation’, it seems as if results aren’t quite as important as the overall ability of the players involved. So long as a group of players are of noticeably higher quality than their predecessors, then this is probably enough for them to earn a ‘golden generation’ tag.
Which brings us to Hibs. Around the middle of the previous decade, the Leith club were producing their very own golden generation. Year after year more new faces would be promoted to the senior side, each one making an instant impact on the club’s fortunes on the pitch. Between 2002 and 2007 it seemed like the club had a never-ending conveyer belt of talent just waiting to play. Scott Brown, Steven Whittaker, Kevin Thomson and Steven Fletcher were just some of the youth products blooded in the senior team during this time that went on to enjoy successful careers.
One by one the players left Hibernian in search of a higher level. Many made the short trip to Glasgow to sign for either half of the Old Firm, some went down to England while Garry O’Connor ended moving to Russia in a multi-million pound deal. The club raised around £20 million in player sales from 2005 to 2009 – a huge sum for a club of Hibernian’s size at the time – but it’s probably fair to say that the club didn’t capitalise on their golden generation on the pitch. There was a League Cup win in 2007 but apart from that, the exciting group of players have few tangible successes in Edinburgh.
But what if Hibernian’s team wasn’t periodically dismantled? What if, rather than acquiescing to player sales, the Hibs board refused to play ball and made retaining their squad their top priority? What if Hibs had kept their golden generation?
During this period of the noughties, the sheer number of future internationals that Easter Road was developing was truly remarkable. Steven Whittaker, Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Dean Shiels, Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor and Steven Fletcher all went on to play for their national sides and were products of Hibernian’s youth academy. With talent such as this pouring out the youth academy, the club didn’t need to rely too heavily on the transfer market to populate the squad. That doesn’t mean that the club didn’t have an eye for a player too, though.
Gary Caldwell joined on a free transfer from Newcastle after spending three seasons at the English club out on loan, failing to make a single first team appearance. Fellow central defender Sol Bamba – who went on to start for Ivory Coast at the 2014 World Cup – was signed from Dunfermline for around £80,000 while Liam Miller joined for free. Michael Stewart was recruited from Manchester United for nothing and mercurial talents like Abdessalam Benjelloun and Merouane Zemmama were identified and brought in.
This combination of neat work in the transfer market with a flourishing youth setup left Hibs in an enviable position and it’s fun to think of the team that might have been. Below, we’ve made up a possible starting eleven for Hibs from this era, had they managed to keep a hold of all of their players.
It’s a fairly impressive team and it’s one that still has no space to accommodate the likes of Stewart, Shiels, Zemmama or Ivan Sproule. As a team filled with players who would go on to lift league titles later in their careers, it isn’t inconceivable to imagine this team seriously troubling the Old Firm duopoly of the time.
It’s obviously impossible to say for certain how a hypothetical team would perform of the course of a season but, looking at the players Hibs accumulated over these years, a tilt at the title doesn’t seem an unrealistic goal, even if going all the way was unlikely. In reality, over this period, Hibs only finished as high as third once in 2004/05, and even then they were still 31 points behind Celtic in second place. This was the Old Firm at the height of their dominance, although that would soon change.
Rangers would collapse during the 2011/12 season, leaving a gaping hole at the summit of Scottish football for someone to offer a serious and sustained challenge to Celtic. In truth, this probably happened a little too late for this Hibs side to have been able to turn the situation to their advantage. The likes of Derek Riordan and Garry O’Connor burned out long before 2011. Both players had similar career trajectories – exploding on the scene at a young age, sealing a move to a bigger club but failing to make an impact, before dropping like a stone through the football pyramid hierarchy. For the purposes of this article, we’ll consider from around 2005 to 2009.
With Walter Smith’s Rangers and Gordon Strachan’s Celtic to contend with, it’s difficult to see this Hibs side, talented as they were, to finish ahead of either team over a full league season. Both of these teams qualified for the last sixteen of the Champions League during this period, with Rangers also reaching the UEFA Cup final in 2008. These European achievements underline the strength of the Old Firm at this time – even without their Hibernian recruits, it’s hard to envisage any Scottish team keeping up with them. Hibs would certainly be better, but 31 points seems an almost insurmountable gap to bridge.
The SPL might have been a step too far for this team but it has the makings of a side who could challenge any team in the country over the duration of a cup tie. This was also the case in reality – Hibernian won the League Cup in 2007 and reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup three times between 2005 and 2007, falling short each time. With a few more members of their golden generation still at the club, it’s feasible that the club could have went one step further and reached a final, where anything can happen. With a team like this, it’s very plausible that they could have ended the club’s century-long wait for the Scottish Cup before Alan Stubbs did just that in 2016.
Domestically, Hibs probably could have picked up a couple of trophies but how would they fare in European competition? The Hibees repeatedly failed to get past the first qualifying round of the UEFA Cup during this period, but it’s worth pointing out that these fixtures took place when Hibs were at their weakest. Key players had often been sold just weeks before and new signings had no chance to gel before getting thrown in at the deep end. Perhaps with a little more stability, by refusing to sell their players, this sorry record could have been improved upon.
Tony Mowbray’s disastrous spell at Celtic Park remains the ex-Hibs boss’ only European campaign and judging by that, it’s difficult to envisage much success in this department with Mowbray in charge. But when John Collins took charge in 2006, their fortunes in the cups changed and that form could have then spread to European qualifiers. Making the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup might have been a big ask but reaching the group stages shouldn’t be. Many of these players have played in the Champions League and given good accounts of themselves; they’re clearly capable at this level.
I guess we’ll never know. It felt like every summer Hibs would lose a player who was one of their best in recent history. And then, out of nowhere, there was someone else, ready to pick up the mantle. Every season would begin with the fans wondering how the team would cope with this or that player’s departure, only to end with a new homegrown prospect bursting onto the scene. Combined with some savvy business in the transfer market, it’s a team that – had it stayed together – would undoubtedly have been a fascinating experiment in Scottish football. League titles and European trophies might have been beyond Hibs’ golden generation, but they could have been a real force on the domestic stage.