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Stark allows 'distraught' pair space to grieve over relegation

THE grieving process can continue unfettered for two of Hibernian's young players after Billy Stark took the compassionate decision to release them from his Scotland Under-21 squad ahead of tomorrow's European Championship qualifying tie at home to the Netherlands.

Stark spoke to both Sam Stanton and Danny Handling on Sunday night following Hibs' relegation to the SPFL Championship and felt neither player seemed in the right frame of mind to prepare for another match.

With the young Scots needing to beat the Dutch to have any chance of reaching next summer's finals in the Czech Republic, Stark also admitted their presence may not have been conducive to the upbeat atmosphere that he is trying to build around the camp.

"I spoke to the Hibs boys [on Sunday] night and because of the way things went, they were distraught as you can imagine," said Stark. "Sometimes people might believe that footballers don't care but the two of them were really upset so I made the decision just to leave it. They would be coming with all that baggage into a squad that's trying to be positive.

"You could see there were players in tears at the end of the game and when I spoke with them, I got the feeling they were really down - as you would expect. They are both 1994s [the year they were born] so are available for the next campaign anyway. It's one of those things that can crop up with the timing of the season.

"Play-offs are a relatively new concept so you never know what's going to come out of them. Going into the game, most people thought Hibs would get there but they didn't so we have to make a decision. That was part of the reason I named a bigger squad so we're well covered."

Stark also has four Hearts players in his squad and he revealed that playing in the second tier next season will not diminish their chances of selection. "It's not such a concern for us. The A squad is about players playing at the highest level. From our point of view, most of our boys are playing first-team football quite regularly.

"If that's in the Championship, I don't think that affects us at all - particularly when you look at the size of some of the clubs that are in that league. I've picked players from the likes of Falkirk and Hamilton in the past, those clubs that have been up and down. So I don't set it out in categories other than you are judging the player's ability. I'm experienced enough in this job now not to be too far away with that judgement call."

One of those Hearts players is Callum Paterson, who is relishing the prospect of a season like no other in Scottish football's second tier. "It was strange to see Hibs going down the way they did and it wasn't good for them but it's brilliant for us to have four derbies which will boost attendances for both clubs," he said.

More pressing for Paterson is tomorrow night's game at St Mirren Park as Scotland look to avenge the 4-0 drubbing by the Dutch in Nijmegen last September. "I came on late in the last match against them and the way they played and the tempo they played at showed they are a top-class side," added the versatile Hearts man. "It was really warm and humid and the weather suited them which showed as we lost four goals in the last half hour of the game."

Stark admitted it be a big ask to get the better of opponents still undefeated in Group 3 but was not entirely without optimism. "History is littered with underdogs having their day," said the coach. "In the past couple of weeks there have been plenty of examples of it."

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