Hearts may have made it known for some time that they intended to move forward with a team predominantly made up of academy products, but it still came as a big surprise when news broke on Sunday night that Ian Black wouldn’t be having his contract renewed.
The buzz of reaching the Scottish Cup final had put fans’ fears of mass departures on the back-burner over the past few weeks so it was a shock to many when it emerged that the club wouldn’t be taking up the option to extend the contract of arguably their player of the season.
In allowing the midfielder to leave, Hearts are turning down the chance to sign a player who would surely cost in excess of £1 million if he were contracted to a club. Having done this, however, the Tynecastle club can in no way be accused of duping their fans, as they’ve never hidden the fact that they wanted to go down a route of nurturing youth and casting aside more expensive senior players.
Black, though, surely wouldn’t have been a bank-breaker in SPL terms and, despite most fans having come round to the club’s new way of thinking, many still hoped that, of those out of contract this summer, at least one of Black, Craig Beattie or Rudi Skacel might be retained to keep the team competitive. The worry now is that no contracts will be renewed.
That said, there is little doubt that, given the reckless overspending of recent years and the need to give young Scots a chance, Hearts are going down the right road in placing their faith in homegrown products.
However, for it to work effectively, a balance must be retained between youth and experience. Ask anyone involved in football and they’ll tell you that, because of the gulf between Under-19 football and the SPL, youngsters need to be bedded in gradually. People will point to Falkirk who, crippled financially, had no option but to turn to kids. Of course, they earned rave reviews earlier in the season but, as is often the case with a team of kids, they ultimately fell victim to inconsistency and fatigue. Down south, Aston Villa, like Hearts, have gone from throwing money at the project to trying to develop from within, however they are finding that throwing in a raft of talented youngsters can be a risky business.
Hearts, therefore, will have to do everything possible to protect their promising crop of youngsters. If Beattie and Skacel are allowed to follow Black out the exit door, then, at the very least, under-contract players such as Andy Webster, Jamie Hamill, Danny Grainger, Darren Barr and Andrew Driver will all have to be retained to guide Riccarton’s finest through the stormy waters that lie ahead.
I’ve never understood the ridicule Gary Caldwell has been subjected to in Scotland and, thankfully, in light of his excellent form for Wigan, it doesn’t quite seem like such a sin to praise the former Hibs and Celtic player. I’m not suggesting Caldwell is any kind of superstar – he has his limitations just like any other Scottish player of the modern era. However, having won two SPL titles, a Football Writers’ Player of the Year award, played in the Champions League, won almost 50 caps and ended his third season in the English Premier League by captaining Wigan to the brink of survival, Caldwell, with the exception of David Weir, must go down as comfortably Scotland’s best defender of the current century. Managers who have placed their faith in him include Tony Mowbray, Gordon Strachan, Walter Smith, Alex McLeish, George Burley, Craig Levein and Roberto Martinez. They can’t all be wrong.