It’s safe to say 2014 has been an annus horribilis for Callum Tapping. Put simply, injuries have wreaked havoc with the 21-year-old midfielder at a crucial juncture in his career.
Having never previously suffered any notable lay-off, a niggling thigh problem which first surfaced in January of this year ended up sidelining him for the last three months of the 2013/14 campaign and effectively killed his chance of earning a new contract at Hearts.
The devastating news – albeit not entirely unexpected – that his three years at Tynecastle were over was delivered to him by Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson on that tumultuous Monday morning in May when Ann Budge’s ownership of the club kicked into gear in the most spectacular fashion.
After regrouping over the summer, Tapping set about trying to get his career back on track with Brechin City. He started seven of their first eight competitive games of the current season, then, in the second half of a League 1 fixture at Stirling Albion in mid-September, disaster struck.
“I overstretched and ended up going over my knee,” he recalls. “I knew straight away I had to come off because I couldn’t put any weight on it. Soon after that, I started doing a bit running so I thought it wasn’t too bad. But, after a few weeks, I realised it wasn’t progressing and that I had to get something done. I went to a private knee surgeon and had some scans and he told me I’d damaged my cruciate and would need surgery. It was devastating because it’s pretty much the worst injury you can get.”
It means that Tapping will finish 2014 having featured in only 13 competitive football matches and that his season is effectively over. Two injury- ravaged campaigns in succession is far from ideal for an ambitious young man eager to fulfil the promise that took him to Tottenham Hotspur in 2009.
“I’ll be out at least until April,” he explained. “If I’m lucky, I might get back for the last month of the season. I didn’t rupture it completely and the surgery’s gone well so hopefully I’ll be okay. This year’s certainly not been great for me. I’ve had a lot of injuries and I’ve not played as much as I’d have liked. I’ve also had the transition of going from full-time football to part-time. I came back in pre-season hoping to get a good amount of games under my belt. I had played a few good games for Brechin at the start of the season and things were looking good. I was really enjoying my football so the injury came at a terrible time. 2014 has been the worst year of my career so far. Hopefully, next year will be better.”
Despite his latest setback – he only learned the extent of his injury last month – Tapping is maintaining a positive outlook. He still believes that he can overcome the adversity of the past 12 months and make it back into full-time football.
Brechin manager Ray McKinnon signed him after being informed of his availability by his defender Colin Hamilton – the brother of Hearts keeper Jack – and the Angus club have already assured him that he has a contract for next season, allowing him some peace of mind after the uncertainty of his last few months at Hearts.
“I knew it was going to be hard to get a club [in the summer] because I hadn’t played for so long,” said Tapping, the only Hearts player from last season no longer in the full-time ranks. “I had to get games and prove myself again. I would love to have stayed full-time, but I’m 21 now and the main thing is playing games. It’s hard for young boys to get clubs now. The opportunity wasn’t there to go full-time and play regularly, but Brechin gave me an opportunity.
“It’s hard going from being in full-time football for five years to being part-time, but Brechin have been brilliant to me. They make it as professional as possible. It can be hard mentally because you want to be playing full-time football but I couldn’t be at a better part-time club.
“I was thinking about getting a full-time job but, since my injury, I’ve just been concentrating on my rehab and doing everything I can to get fit again. When that happens, I’ll start trying to prove myself at Brechin again but my long-term goal is still to get back full-time. After being at Tottenham and Hearts, I don’t want to be playing part-time for the rest of my days. If you speak to anyone at part-time level, they’d tell you they want to play full-time because being a professional footballer is such a good career. I’m still young so there’s still an opportunity to get back full-time. Brechin have told me their aim is to get me back full-time.
“My contract runs until the end of the season, but they want me to sign a new one for next season so we’ll hopefully get that sorted. That’s reassuring. Brechin have been brilliant with me in terms of sorting me out with the surgery and the contract situation. Everyone from the board, to the management to the players. I can’t explain how good they’ve been. It’s a good club to be at.”
At this time last year, Tapping was starting regularly for a young Hearts team who were finding the going extremely difficult as they battled in vain to try and overcome their 15-point penalty in the Scottish Premiership. The midfielder and his colleagues were struggling badly to cope as part of a threadbare squad short of experience and confidence. Despite his team’s toils, however, Tapping could take solace from the fact he was getting significant game time under Gary Locke and would probably get plenty more exposure in the second half of the campaign in order to try and impress whoever would be handing out new deals when the club exited administration.
As it transpired, Tapping, one of the few young Hearts players whose contracts were due to expire last summer, ended up kicking his last ball for the club as a substitute in the penalty shoot-out defeat by nine-man Inverness at Easter Road on February 2. He left Tynecastle with 33 appearances to his name, the majority made in 2013. “I knew in January I was out of contract at the end of the season and I knew I had to get games in,” he said, recalling the frustrating end to last season. “Especially the way things were going, I felt I needed to get a good five to ten more games under my belt in the second half of last season, but I couldn’t get myself fit and do enough to stay on.
“Until this year, I’d never been one for getting injuries. I’d never been out for more than two months before at any time in my football life. But at the back end of January, I did the back of my thigh and was only supposed to be out for a month. But every time I tried to come back, it kept recurring and I kept pulling up. I was out for five months in the end. It came at the worst possible time for me because, from February onwards, the team started doing really well. It was frustrating because everyone else was doing really well at the time and there was nothing I could do to try and impress whoever was going to be dealing with new contracts.
“I would have loved to have been a part of it at the end of the season [when the team was going well]. The first half of the season was really hard for everyone because it was the first time most of the young boys had played in such a massive situation. I think it was just a matter of experience because the first six months of last season hit us really hard. The second half of the season everybody was more confident. From January onwards, everybody had a bit of experience under their belts and they started to kick on. I felt myself I was getting more confident just before I got injured. It was a massive blow because when you see the team doing so well, you want to be involved. I’d like to think I’d have kicked on with the rest of the boys.”
Then came ‘Budgement Day’ when, on the first Monday after the season had finished, Tapping, manager Locke and senior players like Jamie Hamill and Jamie MacDonald were told that their Hearts careers were over. “I wasn’t too sure how things would pan out with my contract,” Tapping said of his last few months at Tynecastle. “I knew things were going to change at the club. Because I hadn’t played in the second half of the season, it wasn’t a massive shock, but I wasn’t expecting it to end the way it did.
“Towards the end of the season, a few of the boys were uptight and asking questions about the contract situation, but it was only on that day when we all turned up at Tynecastle that we found out what was happening. We went in one by one for a meeting with Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson and got told the situation. It was a sad way for it to end because Hearts is such a good club. I loved it there. The people around the club were great and made it a good place to be. You want to be involved with a club like that for as long as possible.”
As well as fellow 21-year-olds like Kevin McHattie, Jamie Walker, Jason Holt, Brad McKay, who remain prominent at Hearts, Tapping also takes encouragement from the emergence of some his former Tottenham youth-team colleagues who are starting to make hay in the English Premier League. Harry Kane, 21, is scoring regularly for Spurs, while Tom Carroll, 22, is getting regular action on loan at Swansea. The duo are helping illuminate the way out of a dark tunnel for Tapping. “I played in the same youth team as Harry and Tom. I don’t really look back and say ‘that could have been me.’ That’s just football – it’s a harsh game. It’s just good to see boys you know doing so well at a high level. When you see your friends doing so well, it’s inspiring. It makes you want to get to that level yourself.”