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Football: That Doumbe kid sure plays a mean ball; MATHIAS MAKES HIS MARK AFTER FALSE START.

Byline: By GAVIN BERRY

IT'S ironic that at a time when Alex McLeish's judgment of a player is under scrutiny one of his signings is in the form of his life.

But the trouble for the Ibrox boss is that Mathias Doumbe is enjoying a magnificent season in the green and white of Hibs and not the light blue of Rangers. In October, 2001 Doumbe became McLeish's second last signing at Easter Road only for the manager to leave just a couple of months after bringing the Frenchman to the Capital.

Eck didn't field the 24-year-old before he left and it was a full 10 months before the defender finally made his Hibs debut, Ironically against McLeish's Rangers.

Doumbe didn't exactly cover himself in glory when he conceded a penalty in a 4-2 defeat at Easter Road and had to wait a further four months for his second start. But he has since made up for lost time, becoming a mainstay in Bobby Williamson's side and the rock the Hibs gaffer has anchored his promising youngsters to.

Doumbe's belated emergence has seen his stock rise dramatically this season and if a test of a player outside the Old Firm is how he performs against the Glasgow giants then he has passed with flying colours.

He was a stand-out in the CIS Cup quarter-final and semi-final wins against Celtic and Rangers and can now look forward to his first cup final since he was 15 with relish.

Hibs' march to next month's Hampden showdown with Livingston has seen their clutch of star kids earn rave reviews and dominate headlines. But among the hype it seems to have been forgotten that Doumbe is probably the best of all.

Observers have been slow to recognise the amiable Frenchman, some even believing he's new to the club because of the time it has taken for him to earn a regular run. People are catching on, though, and the timing for Williamson and Hibs couldn't be worse because the player's contract is up at the end of the season, meaning he is available now for nothing.

The man who brought the former French Under-21 international to Scotland has even been linked with a move and Doumbe admitted McLeish has been quick to offer praise.

He said: 'Alex told me after the Scottish Cup match at Easter Road that I had had a good season. Does he want to sign me? I don't think so, he seems to have a team for next year.'

For Doumbe, the first month after Eck left was the most difficult of his time in Scotland but he insists once he was over that he didn't mind waiting for his chance.

He said: 'I was only ever on the bench under Alex but I knew it would be difficult when he left because a manager buys you for a reason and you never know if the new man is going to see the same things.

'When Bobby came in the team were struggling a bit so maybe he wanted to give more experienced men a chance rather than risk a foreigner who hadn't played.

'I don't know why it took so long before I was finally given a break but waiting for one is part of a footballer's life.

'You are part of a team and can't just go and say 'I want to play' so you have to wait your turn. And when the chance comes you have to make sure you take it.'

At first it looked as if Doumbe had not taken it conceding a penalty wasn't the best of starts.

But he said: 'Apart from that I didn't think I was so bad. Everyone makes mistakes if they didn't every game would be 0-0." The blunder proved to be just a minor blip and he said: 'Look now, we're in a cup final, the first for years for Hibs. I couldn't be happier. It's taken time to get where I am now but it has been worth the wait.

'When you get past the difficult stages of the cup, which are the quarter and semi-finals, anything can happen and it would be great to win a trophy at Hibs. I'm really happy to be in the side because that's what I've been working towards since I arrived. I always believed in my own ability but I wasn't playing.

'Now I have the confidence of the manager who is playing me regularly and that's why I'm performing well.

'The supporters have started to notice me a lot more in the street and that's good because it shows they appreciate what you are trying to do for the club.'

If Doumbe's time at Hibs has been stop-start it's in keeping with the rest of a career that seems to have been littered with what-ifs? At 13 he was offered a place at Clarefontaine, France's youth academy, but his parents insisted he stuck to his school studies.Close friend Phillipe Christanval went along and has played for Barcelona and Marseille. What if?

However, Mathias was picked up by boyhood heroes Paris-Saint Germain and just as he was reaching the fringes of the first team he suffered a serious ankle injury. The club refused to offer him a new contract. What if?

The blow also came at a time when he was breaking into the national Under-21team for whom he had played against Romania. What if?.

But Doumbe, whose father Michel is from Cameroon, isn't one for regrets. Hailing from St Denis on the outskirts of Paris, Mathias served his apprenticeship with Sarcelle in the French capital. After missing out on the big time with PSG he moved to Drancy in the Third Division to re-establish himself but being booted out of the club he grew up supporting was a hammer blow, although one he won't discuss.

However, even before his ankle injury it was certainly no disgrace not being able to break into a PSG side that contained such as Jay-Jay Okocha, Nicolas Anelka and Rangers' Mikel Arteta.

Doumbe said: 'They were going for the league and you can't play for them when you're 20. No-one does. But that doesn't mean to say I don't have experience at the top level.

'Being in the reserves for PSG is different from the way it is in Britain. We were in the Fourth Division playing against the first teams from other clubs and it was a big thing for them to beat us.'

Despite not chalking up a single first-team appearance, the experience Doumbe picked up at the Parisian outfit was invaluable. In fact, it was former Aberdeen defender Antoine Koumbouare who was his reserve team coach and he rates him as his biggest career influence But what about being prevented from going to Clarefontaine, the academy that helped celebrated French footballers such as Thierry Henry and Anelka get their first foot on the ladder of fame.

Doumbe just shrugs and says: 'My parents didn't want me to go. I could have argued but I was only 13 so do you think they would have listened? Anyway, I have done a lot of things instead. Others who went might know more about football I know more about life.

'It wouldn't be fair to say my parents were wrong. There is no right or wrong, it's about opinions. What you can say, though, is that I'm playing catch-up with those who went.'

And making up for lost time is something Mathias certainly appears to be good at.

CAPTION(S):

Hampden soar: Daniel Andersson, Doumbe and Tam McManus celebrate beating Gers; Wait off my mind: Mathias Doumbe is making the most of his breakthrough at Hibs
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Feb 22, 2004
Words:1282
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