So much for the new wave of realism and understanding that was supposed to meet cash-strapped Hearts’ emphasis on nurturing youth. It’s not really materialised, has it?
When it was first established that Hearts would be making drastic cutbacks and bringing through a promising batch of kids from the Academy to replace established SPL players, there was a general acceptance among supporters that this would be an exceptionally difficult season and that it might even involve a scrap to avoid relegation. ‘We need to be patient’, Hearts fans agreed.
The feeling was that as long as John McGlynn kept a severely-depleted Hearts in the SPL, while also blooding the much-vaunted under-20s, it would be a relatively satisfactory season for the manager. Yet now, as a squad top-heavy on unproven kids starts to find the going tough, many fans are not exactly proving as tolerant as they originally intended.
The snipers are out in force with regards to the manager and the booing and general restlessness which can destroy fragile youngsters is starting to emanate from the stands. Most of the vitriol appears to be aimed at McGlynn himself, which seems astonishing considering the unprecedented level of restraint he is operating under. “He’s out of his depth”, “tactically inept”, “ruining a promising batch of youngsters” – these are just some of the ridiculous assessments from fed-up Hearts fans, completely ignoring the fact he is working with one of the weakest squads in the league, certainly in terms of proven first-team players.
Had Hearts been able to retain David Templeton and Ryan McGowan, while also keeping Danny Grainger and the hugely-influential Marius Zaliukas fit for the entire season, it is not unreasonable to assume that, even in their current shambolic state, they might have made the top six and maybe even Europe. As it stands, anyone who thinks the current squad is one of the six strongest in the country is living in cloud cuckooland. On paper, it’s barely stronger than that of St Mirren who sit directly beneath them in the table.
Aside from Andy Webster and Danny Wilson, there are no top SPL players (ie. those who are the envy of other teams) fit and remaining at Hearts, and even then the latter is only trying to rebuild his stalled career. Of the team that started on Saturday, only Jamie MacDonald, Darren Barr, Webster and Wilson could be considered proven SPL players, while Michael Ngoo, despite still being a rookie himself, at least carries the status of being a Liverpool player.
Other SPL teams who are ahead of Hearts may have less illustrious, less costly names on their books, but they have been carefully sourced from the likes of League One, League Two, the SFL or abroad by managers who have had full control in shaping their own squads as they wish. McGlynn is the only manager in the league who hasn’t had that luxury. He has been working with the few senior pros left from the previous regime – all the best ones have been defenders – and has had to cobble them together with a band of youngsters, who, despite their obvious potential, are still unproven boys yet to fill out physically.
But this is our best crop of youngsters in 20 years, they cry. That may indeed be the case, but it means little in the context of making it in the SPL. The Hearts youngsters’ main claim to fame is finishing second in the Under-19 league in the previous two seasons. However, Hibs Under-19s fared even better in 2009, winning the league and cup double, yet David Wotherspoon is the only one of that side who cut the mustard in the Hibs first team. The likes of Callum Booth, Sean Welsh, Ewan Moyes and Lee Currie can all be found in the SFL, while others have entered total obscurity.
Hearts’ youngsters have all shown in flashes – notably in the League Cup semi-final – what they can bring to the table and early suggestions are that at least a couple might carve long-term careers in the game. However, until they develop the mentality, physicality and general savvy required to win matches regularly, which will only come from painful experiences like those of recent weeks, Hearts will continue to struggle against teams who, put simply, have more battle-hardened SPL-standard professionals than they do.
While Hearts fans spoilt by top-six finishes clamour to put the boot into McGlynn, it could be argued that it’s a minor miracle that they’ve got a cup final to look forward to and are – mathematically, at least – still in with a shout of finishing ahead of Dundee United and Aberdeen, who now have significantly stronger squads. A serious dose of realism is required down Tynecastle way.