Andy Kirk first joined Hearts in February 1999 as a hungry 19-year-old looking to make his way in the game. Now, in his second spell at the club, the Ulsterman’s working day revolves around preparing aspiring footballers of a similar age for a long-term career in the game.
Kirk, who enjoyed five and a half fruitful years at Tynecastle after Jim Jefferies bought him from Glentoran, is revelling in his role as head coach of Hearts’ under-17s. In addition to taking charge of this age-group since predecessor Liam Fox left for Cowdenbeath in the summer, the 37-year-old has been assisting under-20s coach Jon Daly and also mucking in to help prepare the first-team on a match-day.
The chance to work closely with Craig Levein, his old Hearts manager, and Robbie Neilson, his former team-mate, has been a thrill for Kirk, who had been busy cutting his coaching teeth in the SFA performance schools and the Rangers academy since playing his last senior match for Alloa Athletic two-and-a-half years ago.
“I got a phone call from Roger Arnott, who I knew from years ago, and I had a chat with him and Craig just before Christmas [last year] about where the academy’s going and where they saw me fitting in, and I thought it was a great opportunity,” Kirk told the Evening News. “Eventually, I want to go into management and I felt it would be good to come here and learn. I first came into the academy in February on a part-time role with the under-15s and then went full-time in the summer after Foxy left for Cowdenbeath.
“I also help Jon with the 20s and I’m involved with the first team on match-days, which is great. Jon and me help Stevie Crawford with the warm-up before the game. Once the game starts, we’ll be up in the stand watching the game or helping out around the dugout in case the boys need anything. Just to be exposed to all that, to see how it all works and get ideas and experience, is great. It’s brilliant just to watch some of the first-team training sessions now and again and to be able to pick the brains of guys like Robbie, Stevie, Jon and Craig. I had a gut feeling that this was the right place for me and it’s turned out to be a great decision for me so far.”
Kirk was entitled to trust his instincts. After all, this gut feeling he speaks of first persuaded him to leave Belfast and sign for Hearts as a teenager.
“I had a great five-and-a-half years here and a great rapport with the fans,” said Kirk, who went on to play for Boston, Yeovil, Northampton and Dunfermline. “It was the right club for me to join after leaving Glentoran. There were a few clubs in for me at that time – some from down south – but, as soon as I heard Hearts had put a bid in for me, it felt right to come here. I settled quite quickly and it was a good club to play for. I probably had the best times of my career here. We had a good squad and we qualified for Europe quite a few times.”
After a raft of substitute outings interspersed with playing for the club’s under-21 team in his first year and a half in Edinburgh, Kirk pinpoints his third first-team start – a 3-2 win at home to Stuttgart in the UEFA Cup in September 2000 towards the end of Jefferies’ reign – as the catalyst for his Hearts career.
“The Stuttgart game really sticks out for me,” said Kirk. “I was a young boy who had just broken into the team and the atmosphere was unreal. The weekend after that I scored my first goal against Motherwell and it snowballed from there. Gordon Durie was actually a big influence on me at that point. On the day I scored my first goal, he made his debut and scored two. I played a number of games up front with him after that and he really sticks out as being someone who helped me settle. He was at the opposite end of his career at that stage and he helped me through the game and took the pressure off me.”
Kirk, a fox-in-the-box striker, enjoyed some of the best form of his career under Craig Levein, who replaced Jefferies as manager in November 2000.
“I had a lot of respect for Craig and how demanding how he was and his influence stuck with me throughout my career,” said Kirk. “I’d always wanted to go into coaching, so I made a point of trying to remember what I learnt from my managers and Craig was one who had a big influence on me. The best parts of my career mainly came under him.”
Many of Kirk’s 32 goals for Hearts came from an effective partnership with Mark de Vries, the bustling Dutchman whose arrival coincided with back-to-back third-place finishes in 2003 and 2004.
“I played up with Durie, Gary McSwegan and Stephane Adam, but De Vries was probably my most regular partner here,” said Kirk. “We had a good relationship on and off the pitch. The strongest point of my game was running in behind and trying to get into the box. Mark wasn’t the most mobile but he was a big boy who could hold the ball up and win flick-ons, so we complemented each other nicely.”
Another of Kirk’s team-mates at Hearts in the early noughties was Neilson.
“At that stage I couldn’t have imagined Robbie being a manager because you don’t know what path anyone’s going to take but I’m not surprised he’s done well because he was always a hard-working player,” he said. “Since I’ve come in here, I’ve seen just how hard he works and how much detail he puts into planning and training. I want to go down a similar route to Robbie, so it’s great to pick up on what he’s doing. It’s a credit to him that he’s doing so well – the work that he’s putting in is phenomenal.”
This work ethic has underpinned a strong resurgence from Hearts on and off the pitch in the wake of administration two-and-a-half years ago. It is well documented that the academy had been neglected as financial ruin took hold at the club. Kirk, however, reports that it is now in good health.
“The academy is in very good shape and it’s only going to get better,” he said. “We’ve got some great young talent here who we hope can go up the ladder and into the first team. There are quite a few between the under-17s and 20s who I’m excited about.”
Kirk’s excitement is justified given that four of his under-17 players – Chris Hamilton, Marc Leonard, Harry Cochrane and Anthony McDonald – were this week called into the 19-strong Scotland squad for the upcoming Victory Shield tournament at Oriam. “It’s great recognition for the club,” he said. “They’re not just involved in the squad – I think they’ll be big players for Scotland.”
In the meantime, Kirk’s attention turns to helping Daly’s Under-20s, who reached last year’s final, find a way past Annan in Sunday’s Youth Cup third-round match at Tynecastle (kick-off 1pm). “For a club this size and the players we’ve got, we need to be aiming to get to finals,” he said. “Some of them had a taste of it last year, playing at Hampden and, whatever age-group it is, it whets your appetite to play in more big games. Playing at Tynecastle is a big thing as well for young players. Before I broke into the Hearts first team, I played against Hibs in the under-21 league. It was a title decider and there were about 6000 people there and I scored four. It helped bring me to prominence because fans started to say ‘who’s this guy?’”