A popular theory as to why the Scotland national team has been in decline for the last twenty years plus or so is that Scotland are no longer producing top quality players. As a Hibs fan, I disagree with that as in the early 2000s there was a conveyor belt of good young Scottish players coming through the club but many didn’t reach their potential. An extreme, yet interesting example would be that of Derek Riordan.
Derek Riordan is a player that most Hibs fans my age will quickly name as the best player to wear the green in recent times (Sorry Franck). In two spells with Hibs, Riordan scored 104 in 260 games which places him 3rd in the all time SPFL top scorer charts behind such illustrious names as Henrik Larsson and Kris Boyd. I first saw Riordan play in a 3-2 defeat against Patrick Thistle on the last day of the 2002/2003 season. In what was a dead rubber game, Bobby Williamson picked an experimental line up which includes some now well known names and it is fair to say Riordan and Scott Brown stole the show. After the game I remember those around me as we left Easter Road saying how both Riordan and Brown would have great careers in the game. Fast forward fifteen years, however and their careers couldn’t be more different.
Derek George Riordan was born on 16th January 1983 and raised in the Pilton area of Edinburgh. He played for Hutchison Vale before being signed by Hibs in May 1999 by Alex McLeish. It wasnt until McLeish had left under a cloud to join Rangers and Franck Sauzee was appointed Hibs manager that Riordan made his debut which was in 1-1 draw against Hearts in December 2001. It could have been a dream debut for an eighteen year old Riordan as only a wonder save from Hearts goalkeeper Antti Niemi prevented a first goal.
For the rest of that season, Riordan was on the fringes of the first team, in what proved to be difficult times for the club as Hibs sacked Franck Sauzee after sixty nine days and one win in fifteen matches. Hibs eventually avoided relegation after appointing Bobby Williamson. I was a season ticket holder during this period and the only two stand out things I remember are the football being pretty back to basics stuff (awful) and Garry O’Connor scoring his first goal in a 1-1 draw with Celtic for a rare point under Sauzee.
During the 2002/2003 season, rumour has it that Riordan was close to leaving Hibs. Williamson wanted to sign Bobby Mann from Dundee but lacked the funds as Hibs were looking to cut costs. Instead he proposed Hibs offer Riordan and Steven Whittaker in exchange. That seems pretty mental now with the benefit of hindsight. Thankfully, the deal never materialised and Riordan was loaned out to Cowdenbeath but it was a short lived stay as he was recalled by Williamson after a run of form saw him score four goals in three matches. It proved a master stroke and Riordan notched his first goal for the club with a free kick in a two all draw against Livingston. This lead to a run in the first team, with Hibs finishing top of the bottom six and Riordan scoring three goals from fours starts and seven substitute appearances.
In the following three seasons that followed Riordan was an integral part of the Hibs team and finished top scorer in each with 18, 23 and 20 goals with Hibs finishing 8th,3rd and 4th. The closest Riordan came to silverware with Hibs was the League Cup in 2004. Having defeated a strong Celtic in the quarters and a free spending Rangers in the semis, they were favourites against Livingston in the final. However, it wasn’t to be and a young Hibs team, featuring Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Gary Caldwell and Garry O’Connor, were beaten 2-0 at Hampden. I was at the semi final and the final and it just shows you what a rollercoaster football can be. From the elation of a penalty shootout win over Rangers to crashing and burning in a winnable final.
The 2004/2005 season ushered in the Tony Mowbray era with some tantalising football on display. Not only did Riordan bag his 23 goals but he was also named Scottish Young Player of the Year. He also won the Scottish Young Player of the month award an incredible six times. This form didn’t go unnoticed and lead to a call up to Walter Smith’s Scotland side in late 2005. His debut came in a 2-2 draw with Austria in Gratz, with a certain Garry O’Connor scoring his first goal for his country.
This kind of form was attracting interest from not only Scottish clubs but also from countries further afield. Bids from Cardiff, Lokomotiv Moscow, Kaiserslautern and Rangers were all turned down by the club or the player. However, in January 2006, it was confirmed Riordan had signed a pre-contract agreement with Celtic, which lead to Hibs accepting a cut price bid of £170,000 allowing the transfer to be complete in the summer.
Despite being hailing as “the best finisher at the club,” by Celtic manager Gordon Strachan, Riordan failed to command a first team spot and made only thirty two appearances in two years, scoring eight goals. Rumours of strife with the Strachan didn’t help his cause, including one incident where Riordan found himself banned from all pubs and clubs in Edinburgh following a fight with door staff in 2008. The ban was extended in November that year when he was allegedly involved in another fight. Strachan, as seen with his recent spell in charge of Scotland, liked players he could rely on and trust which explains the distant relationship and lack of game time.
Despite claiming a Premier League and Scottish Cup medals in his two years with Celtic, it would be fair to say that Riordan’s progression as a player was hampered by the lack of game time at a time. He had a public falling out with Strachan over this with Strachan and was subsequently frozen out and being forced to train with the reserve team. The thing that would have perhaps hurt Riordan most during this period, is that his beloved Hibs, under the management of John Collins, went on to win the League Cup, beating Kilmarnock 5-1 in the final that season (a game I thoroughly enjoyed!).
Looking to move, Celtic would only let Riordan leave on a permanent deal, knocking back several loan offers in the process. On the last day of the 2008 summer transfer window, Hibs, now managed by Mixu Paatelainen put in an offer of around £400,000 which was accepted by Celtic. The prodigal son would be returning!
Hibs initially gave Riordan the squad number of 01 as his preferred 10 was taken by Colin Nish. He eventually got the 10 shirt he craved in the 2009/2010 season when Nish took number 9 from the departing Steven Fletcher. In the 2008/2009 season, which was Riordan first season back at Hibs, he scored 12 goals, and with a hot streak of form at the start of the following season which saw him claim an SPL Player of the Month award and also a recall to the Scotland team, now managed by George Burley. He featured against Japan and Wales but his international career was effectively over once Craig Levein was appointed. No surprise when he often only played one (or zero!) upfront.
In goal scoring terms, Riordan was nearly as prolific as he was in his first spell at Hibs, ending up as top scorer in two of the three years he was back; scoring 12, 17 and 12 goals respectively. This also included him reaching the fabled century of goals for Hibs, which he achieved in December 2009.
In the summer of 2011, it was announced that Riordan would sign for Chinese Super League side, Shaanxi Chanba. For someone who seemed to struggle out with Edinburgh, this was an ill advised move and he only lasted five months, making nine appearances and scoring once. He ended the season with St Johnstone on a short term deal, making four appearances and scoring no goals. His failure to impress coupled with another run in with law due to another alleged fight in an Edinburgh night club lead to his deal not being extended.
From here Riordan’s career is a nomadic existence, where between 2012 and 2017 he had short stints at Bristol Rovers, Alloa Athletic, Brechin City, East Fife, York City and Edinburgh City and he is now as of 2018 without a club. In these spells combined, he made thirty six appearances and scored just seven goals. Now aged thirty five, it appears unless he drops into Junior football like his mate Garry O’Connor, then his footballing career is over.
From the synopsis of his career, his best spells, performances and moments came with Hibs despite the lack of silverware. It is evident he felt most at home at Easter Road due to a number of reasons.
One reason would be that he grew up in Pilton, an area in Edinburgh, so was a local lad. He is a massive Hibs fan and as a child would visit Easter Road regularly, so he was living the dream when he broke into the first team and would be added motivation every time he played. Having his family and friends around him so he had a support network close at hand which would have helped him cope with the stresses and pressures of becoming a professional footballer where everything is analysed. Contrast this with his switch to Celtic and he was out of his comfort zone in Glasgow with the media scrutinising his every move on and off the pitch so it is little wonder this had an impact on him.
Another reason is the importance of the coach which cannot be down played. Donald Park was the head youth academy coach at Hibs during Riordan’s time there and has a proven track record having been appointed in 1994 and serving under Alex Miller and Alex McLeish. As well as Riordan, Park has been credited with the youth development of other youngsters including Kenny Miller, Ian Murray, Tam McManus and Garry O’Connor so its fair to say Park knew what he was doing. Bobby Williamson and Tony Mowbray both had experience of developing youth players from their spells at Kilmarnock and Ipswich respectively. During their stints as Hibs manager, they both placed an emphasis on promoting and playing young players which aided Riordan’s development within the first team and helped develop his game. Park, Williamson and Mowbray proved that game time is important for young players which is why you often here fans these days clutching at straws by saying they hope a player stays for another season when another team becomes interested in the player. This is shown in Riordan’s time at Celtic, as at a key stage in his development he was not being afforded the game time in order to progress. He wasn’t regularly playing football again till his return to Hibs but by then the damage had been done and his development stunted. Riordan is not the first player to suffer this fate in moving to a big club early in his career and not playing and won’t be the last.
Riordan’s mentality, work rate and temperament must also be taken into account. Having seen him play live at the peak of his powers, and from various blogs and match reports from back then it is fair to say that Riordan was the ultimate luxury player. He was great when the team was performing well but lacked the work rate and could be a bit of a sulker often moaning at the referee or at team mates when the team was struggling. He admitted as much in a Scotsman article in May 2013,”I got a row for swearing. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that if I shoot and miss I might swear – I’m a huffy, angry guy when I’m not playing well.” He was also fairly slight in build and never bulked up like some players do to combat the physicality of football, especially in Scotland. It goes someway to explain Strachan’s reluctance to give him a run in the team when at Celtic as he had other options such as Maciej Zurawski, Kenny Miller, Craig Beattie who brought more to the team rather than just goals alone. It’s probably no surprise that the two red cards Riordan received during his spells at Hibs were against Celtic and Hearts for petulant fouls owing to frustration.
Reasons why his career fizzled out after his second spell with Hibs can also be attributed to the off field incidents which plagued his career with his off field incidents in pubs and clubs around Edinburgh well documented. This did impact his time at Celtic as the perception in the Celtic Blog at the time was he was “back home with the lads” and spending a lot of time out on the booze, which probably wasn’t far from the truth, which again Strachan wouldn’t have been a fan of.
He also seemed to enjoy talking to the press to prove a point or get one back on his manager, one such occasion where he was quoted as saying in a Scotsman article in April 2008, “ I’ve virtually chucked it at Celtic,” which isn’t the most professional approach to take. One such occasion lead to him falling put with Strachan.
The other stumbling block most clubs had was the wage he commanded. He was adamant at every club he was at that he would not settle for being paid below what he perceived he was worth. This ultimately cost him in the nomadic part of his career as clubs viewed it as too much of a risk to take.
In the case of Derek Riordan, the old adage that it is “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” is true. The lesson to any young player is that you can have all the god given talent in the world but if you don’t work hard and apply yourself, whilst also making the most of any opportunity presented to you. Some may say that Riordan wasted his talent, but me and many Hibs fans who were lucky to see him play will say that he saved it for the Hibees.