HAVING named Jason Holt and Dale Carrick in his new-look Scotland Under-21 squad, coach Billy Stark revealed today that he is closely monitoring other Hearts protégés Jamie Walker, Kevin McHattie, David Smith and Callum Tapping.
All four are in contention for international recognition next year as Stark builds a team for the 2015 European Under-21 Championship qualifiers.
Hearts’ youth academy graduates are on the Scottish Football Association’s radar following their promotion to the first-team squad at Tynecastle. Scotland Under-21s failed to reach the play-offs for next summer’s European finals in Israel and the 2015 tournament is some distance away but Stark is determined to rebuild early. His preparations start with next week’s friendly matches against USA and Canada in the Spanish resort of Marbella.
Holt’s call-up is recognition of sterling displays for Scotland at under-19 and under-20 level. Stark and his coaching colleagues had earmarked the skilful midfielder as one who could be a key component of the squad that bids for a place at the 2015 finals, to be held in the Czech Republic. Although he has only one substitute appearance to his name for Hearts this season, the 19-year-old is clearly highly regarded by SFA coaches.
Carrick is playing regularly at senior level and has already sampled a European fixture at Anfield despite being only 18. His acceleration into the Hearts first team came because manager John McGlynn has limited options within a vastly reduced squad. However, there is no denying Carrick has made the most of his opportunities in recent weeks.
Stark explained why he feels Riccarton can provide him with a raft of potential Scotland Under-21 players for the forthcoming campaign. “Jason has been with me at under-19 level and been involved in one or two under-21 squads, although he hasn’t played yet,” said Stark. “Dale was involved in the Victory Shield a couple of years ago with the under-16s under Ross Mathie. I watched him play at under-19 level and obviously he’s made the first-team breakthrough now, so this is a wee reward for that.
“Jason is one who had done well for us in the past and we’ve kept tabs on him. When you’re looking at future squads, I always felt he would be one who would have a chance of figuring. I know he’s not in the Hearts first team at the moment but he has been involved with them and is still doing quite well.
“Hearts have a good group of younger boys there, with others like Jamie Walker, Kevin McHattie, David Smith and Callum Tapping. These guys aren’t that far away. They might get a wee shot further down the line. We are monitoring them. The SPL Under-20 league is helping a wee bit because it’s a step up from under-19s. There are one or two more experienced players involved in there along with all the younger ones, and these are the ones that interest me.”
Callum Paterson, still just 17, is part of the Scotland Under-19 squad and will remain there for the moment. The case of Scott Robinson is rather more peculiar. The midfielder is a first-team regular for Hearts and will be eligible for Scotland Under-21s right through to the end of the 2015 European Under-21 Championship. However, he has again been overlooked by Stark in favour of colleagues with less experience.
“Scott was one of our under-19s and midfield is a really strong area of the pitch for us. We are continually monitoring Scott,” explained Stark. “Stuart Armstrong, Kenny McLean, Fraser Fyvie, Rhys McCabe and Jason Holt are all in that position and there is a lot of competition. Armstrong, McLean and McCabe were involved in the last campaign and you like to get a bit of continuity with boys who have previous experience.
“If Scott can be more consistent then he will have a chance. You always have to allow for a lack of consistency with young players. You expect that, particularly with middle to front players. It’s very difficult for creative players to be consistent week in and week out. Scott shouldn’t be disheartened. Once or twice he’s been in our thoughts for selection and he’s been injured, so sometimes it’s just timing.
“Nobody is ruled out, far from it. This is a squad. Our squad for the first qualifier in eight or nine months’ time will be different from this one right now. Young players can burst on the scene. We had that with Gary Mackay-Steven last year, when he’d just got into the Dundee United first team and was tremendously consistent.”
Holt and Carrick will not travel to Spain next week merely for the experience, for Stark intends to use every player in his 18-man squad over the two games. “Absolutely, that’s what this is for. We have two games in Spain, we’re taking a squad of 18 players and they will all feature without a doubt,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve had this new group together and the qualifying tournament is still a wee bit away. The draw doesn’t take place till January. Every minute we can get with the players is beneficial.
“There will be lots of comings and goings and that’s what I tell the players. Form, fitness and other factors will determine each squad as we go forward. Some players will dip in and out, others will be constants right the way through. The main thing is they all keep developing at their clubs.
“There are a number of them who maybe aren’t getting first-team football. It’s always a wee bit like that with a new group of players. When we reach the end of the campaign, then that should have improved greatly. The likes of Kieran Duffie at Falkirk, Ryan Jack of Aberdeen, Fraser Kerr on loan at Motherwell and Clark Robertson at Aberdeen are all playing regularly at the moment. Callum McGregor has been on the fringes of the Celtic first team but it’s difficult to get game time there, likewise Dylan McGeouch. There is a good rump of them involved at senior level, which is encouraging.”
The financial restrictions on Scotland’s football managers perversely benefits someone in Stark’s position who is charged with bringing through fresh crops of talent. “You can throw young players in but they still have to be good enough.
“Sometimes managers take the view that if someone is playing in the first team then they should be in the international squad, be it under-19s or under-21s. It doesn’t always transpire like that. It would be easy if it did because I wouldn’t need to go to games then. I could just pick up a paper and see who was playing and stick them all in. There is a bit more to it than that. As always, it comes down to opinions.”