Chris Kane used to provide a platform for the likes of Jason Holt, Jamie Walker and Callum Paterson to flourish. On Saturday, the Cowdenbeath midfielder will be aiming to stop his old Hearts youth-team colleagues in their tracks.
Kane, 21, spent six years in the youth ranks at Riccarton and was captain of the 1993-born year-group containing the likes of Holt, Walker, Kevin McHattie, Brad McKay, David Smith and Fraser Mullen. With former manager Jim Jefferies and successor Paulo Sergio closely monitoring his form in Darren Murray’s burgeoning Under-19 side, the Corstorphine boy looked to have as good a chance as any of making the step up to the first team. At just 18, he was rewarded by Sergio with a place on the bench for a 4-0 win at home to Dunfermline in December 2011.
Gallingly for the youngster, that was as good as it was to get at Hearts. At the end of that season, with Hearts managerless after Sergio’s departure and preparing for a major cost-cutting exercise, Kane was cut loose by academy director John Murray just before John McGlynn, who would go on to give a raft of youngsters their opportunity, was appointed manager.
“It was disappointing, but at the same time no youth player can expect to guarantee a senior contract with a big club like Hearts even when you have been there a number of years and captained the Under-19s,” he said ahead of his first competitive game against Hearts since leaving the club just over two years ago. “I got released at the same time as Paulo Sergio left the club which was disappointing because he seemed to like me. He had me training with the first-team squad fairly regularly, and although I didn’t really feel I was close to breaking into the first team, I had made the bench against Dunfermline.”
That high point of his Hearts career came at a time when few teenagers got anywhere near a first team which was well stocked with experience. The reluctance to promote youth at Hearts was soon to change as financial restraints took hold, meaning McGlynn, and then Gary Locke, had to delve into the academy for squad reinforcements.
It was too late for Kane, who by now was trying to rebuild his career with Dunfermline as Jefferies handed him the olive branch of a two-year contract at East End Park. While he remains philosophical about his Hearts snub, he feels he could have made an impact had he been afforded the same opportunities as his peers over the past couple of seasons.
“I do feel that, with my performances over the years for Hearts, I was good enough to be given a chance with the first team, especially during the administration season [last season], but obviously I’d been released by then,” he said. “Initially I was gutted, but I quickly made contact with Jim Jefferies, who knew me from Hearts, and he gave me a two-year contract at Dunfermline. I always knew that a few of the boys at Hearts were talented enough to play for the first team, so there were no sour grapes from me. I just wished the lads all the best for the future. I was very close to all the boys in the Under-19s team as we had been together for many seasons. We were all friends over a long period of time. “There were no cliques as Darren Murray would never have allowed it. I was the captain for four years from the age of 15 to 19. I enjoyed the responsibility and the respect it gave me from such good players in a very talented group.
“The likes of Jason, Jamie and Div [Smith] stood out as being particularly talented and latterly Callum Paterson made a big impact on the team. He was a couple of years younger than us and always looked destined to do well.”
While the likes of Holt, Walker and Paterson remain prominent in Hearts’ plans and look like they have a genuine chance of cutting the mustard in the game long term, Kane has had to explore other career options.
The uncertainty of life at League One Dunfermline, who diced with financial calamity during Kane’s time there, prompted the ex-Jambo to embark on a degree in Chemical Engineering at Heriot-Watt University last summer. He soon found that combining full-time studies with playing for a full-time football club wasn’t ideal and took the decision to enter the part-time ranks with Cowdenbeath in January.
Despite the fact he is operating at the opposite end of the Championship – Cowden are bottom – to his old friends at table-topping Hearts, Kane is adamant he harbours no hard feelings about how things have panned out for him.
He is simply relishing the prospect of finally getting the chance to play at a full-house Tynecastle. “I’m excited about Saturday,” he said. “I’m just enjoying the opportunity this league is giving me to play top teams in big stadiums.
“Coming from the west of the city, most of my pals are Hearts fans, and many of them will be at Saturday’s game, but I don’t feel I have any particular point to prove against Hearts – I just want to perform consistently against all the teams in the Championship. I can’t labour on what might have been.”
As a versatile player who operates predominantly as a central midfielder, Kane is likely to find himself in direct combat with Holt in the engine room. “I’ve played midfield, centre-back and full-back since joining Cowdenbeath, but it would be great to line up against Jason,” he said. “I played alongside him in the Under-19s although I played the holding role and Jason was in front of me in a more attacking position. For me, he is one of the best midfielders in Scotland.”
Cowdenbeath have taken only one point from their five league games so far, although they came close to notching their first win at Easter Road last weekend. They led 2-1 when Kane was substituted after 74 minutes, and the ex-Jambo could only watch on helplessly as Hibs roared back to win 3-2.
“I felt I played quite well for my first exposure to players at that level,” he said. “Hopefully that game will stand me in good stead for Saturday’s game against quality players in front of a big crowd.”