Liam Fox, the former Hearts youth coach, believes it is only a matter of time before academy starlets Dario Zanatta, Liam Smith and Angus Beith are established first-team players.
The 32-year-old spent 18 months at Riccarton, working predominantly with the under-17s and under-20s, before taking over as Cowdenbeath manager six weeks ago. As he reflects on his time with Hearts, he pinpoints Zanatta, 19, and 20-year-old duo Smith and Beith as those likeliest to follow Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson and Callum Paterson in emerging from the academy to star in the first team.
After getting a taste of the big time last season, attacker Zanatta and right-back Smith were in the squad for both legs of the Europa League victory over Infonet, either side of producing impressive displays in last Saturday’s 1-1 pre-season friendly draw with Fox’s Blue Brazil side. Midfielder Beith would also have been in contention for a place in the match-day squad against the Estonians if he hadn’t been forced to undergo surgery on his problematic hip eight days ago.
“I said to Robbie Neilson after our friendly last week that Liam and Dario look like first-team players now,” Fox told the Evening News. “They look like that’s the level they should be playing at. They both did fantastically well when they got their opportunities last year and they’ve got real quality. Physically, they’ve both got a bit to go but they’re two potentially very, very good players.
“The other one I’d like to mention is Angus Beith. He is another who, in my eyes, could be a very, very good midfielder. He’s been really unfortunate with injuries and that’s something he needs to get sorted first but he’s definitely got the talent and the ability to kick on. I enjoyed working with them all at Hearts, but those were the three that stuck out for me as the ones who are potentially knocking on Robbie’s door. In my view, the three of them have got a great opportunity to go and be first-team regulars for Hearts.”
Despite being signed predominantly as an under-20s player last summer, Zanatta made 13 first-team appearances last season after catching the eye in the development team. The Canadian’s rapid progress was a factor in Hearts allowing the more established Billy King to go on loan to Rangers for the second half of last term. Fox can see exactly why Hearts management have such high hopes for Zanatta.
“Dario’s got end product,” he said. “He’s got quality and he scores goals. He can play up front, off the front or wide left. He’s just a very good footballer. What separates him from others at the moment is his use of the body. He can put the ball in positions where defenders can’t get to it, a bit like Jamie Walker. The higher you go, the more important it is that you can protect the ball, and Dario can do that. In my opinion, he can definitely go to the same level as Walker, Nicholson and King.”
Due to injury problems, Beith hasn’t been seen in the Hearts first team since making his debut against Livingston in the Petrofac Cup almost two years ago. Fox, who took charge of the under-20s for four months between Jack Ross’s departure and Jon Daly’s arrival, is in no doubt about why the club decided to hand him an extra year’s contract despite his lack of action thus far.
“Goose is an all-round midfielder,” said the Cowdenbeath manager. “He can do everything – he can pass, he can tackle, he can get forward and he’s got a lovely left foot. He’s got good awareness, good vision and a good first touch. He needs a bit of work on his right foot and on his decision-making when he’s deeper up the park, but he’s got a really good attitude. He’s a lovely footballer and I’ve seen a real improvement in his physicality over the last year. Because he’s been injured, he’s had a chance to work on that side of it. He’s got to get his injuries sorted first but if he does that and takes on board what Robbie and Stevie Crawford are saying to him, he’ll get an opportunity. When he came back from injury last season, he was absolutely different close.”
Director of football Craig Levein revealed shortly after taking office in May 2014 that Hearts’ academy had been badly neglected under the previous regime and had been in need of a major rebuild. Having worked inside it for 18 months, Fox is as well placed as anyone to report that it is now in rude health.
“The academy is fantastic,” he said. “The standard of players and coaches they’ve got in have improved and that should bode well for the future. With the new facilities getting built, there is no excuse for not producing players. They’ve got AstroTurf, indoor and outdoor pitches, all the gym facilities, all the sports science and rehab stuff. With what they’ve got, they should be attracting the best young talent in the country. They should be matching Rangers and Celtic in terms of getting these boys in the door.”
Fox, who has taken 18-year-old Hearts winger Lewis Moore on loan to Cowdenbeath, will be forever indebted to the likes of Levein, Neilson, Crawford and Hearts legend and head of coach education John Robertson for helping equip him with the tools to branch out and become a manager at just 32.
“My time at Hearts was absolutely massive for me in terms of getting a grounding in coaching,” he said. “Craig, Robbie and Stevie spent so much time helping me. They’re probably delighted to see the back of me because of all the questions I asked them! They were different class with me.
“It helped that I had six months before I got the Under-17 job working really closely with John Robertson in the academy. Robbo spent a lot of time with me, preparing me to go into the full-time environment. He probably speeded up my progression and my learning by making me open my eyes and look at things in a certain way. Then I kicked on again under Robbie, Craig and Stevie in my last year. It’s been a whirlwind 18 months but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”