Mowbray looks for a tangible reward

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The Independent Online

Time is the one thing you cannot buy in football. Tony Mowbray is finding out his long hours on the training pitch creating a vibrant young team are counter-productive because every player who emerges is lured away before Hibernian can enjoy the fruits of their manager's labour.

Already, Garry O'Connor has gone. The 22-year-old Scotland striker joined Lokomotiv Moscow in midweek for £1.6m. Soon Gary Caldwell, the captain, will be heading to Celtic, having signed a pre-conract agreement. Next will be Derek Riordan, the top scorer, for whom a paltry offer from Rangers was rejected in January and who is being courted by Anderlecht.

The real jewels in Mowbray's crown are the midfielders Scott Brown - already a Scotland player at 19 - and Kevin Thomson, who is coveted by Celtic. Mowbray has just given both new contracts until 2010. It is unlikely that either will still be at Easter Road then, which is why Mowbray is eager to deliver some success soon for the fans before these rising stars are sold off.

The Scottish Cup is the obvious target, but securing a place in Europe for a second successive season would be a tangible reward too. Mowbray's team, along with Rangers and Kilmarnock, are locked in a contest to qualify for the Uefa Cup, though they all secretly hope that Hearts slip up and open up the race for the Champions' League spot behind Celtic.

The leaders come to Edinburgh today full of optimism but also full of admiration. Gordon Strachan likes not only the players that Mowbray is producing, but also the job that he's doing. "Hibernian are a good side," said the Celtic manager. "So if you don't have a ticket try to get one. This is going to be a good game."

However, in football, self-preservation is the most urgent demand. That's why Strachan lured Caldwell, taking advantage of the 23-year-old defender's free-agent status. When Caldwell's defection was announced in January, Hibernian fans jeered him after he blundered to conceded a goal in a home defeat by Aberdeen.

Mowbray rebuked those fans and does not feel that Hibernian's captain will be distracted today. "Apart from a 20-minute spell against Aberdeen, Gary has been our most consistent player. I have absolutely no fears about playing him against Celtic - he will cope with the situation, no problem," he said.

Can Caldwell leave a legacy, for Brown, Thomson and the others? Mowbray still believes that the SPL's other Champions' League place is up for grabs. "There are four teams still competing for second spot and there will be a few more twists and turns," said the manager. "I hope we can still be in there fighting."

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