AFTER 30 first-team games for Hearts, 19-year-old Dale Carrick is still seeking his first senior goal.
The situation is preying on his mind as a striker with an excellent scoring record at youth level. Carrick has nine goals from 13 under-20 outings this season and is eager to reproduce such lethal finishing in the Scottish Premiership.
Hearts’ position at the foot of the league cannot change with victory over Motherwell tomorrow, for they remain 19 points adrift of second-bottom Ross County. Carrick has his own agenda to attend to and is desperate to hit the net in the senior side. After knee and foot injuries, he is fit again and raring to make an impact during what will be a difficult second half of the campaign with his club facing relegation.
“I’m still looking for my first goal in the first team. That would give me a major boost, get the confidence going and get a monkey off my back, so to speak,” said Carrick, one of many Riccarton academy graduates now trying to find his feet in the Hearts first team. “As a striker, you’re judged on your goals so it’s something I want to achieve. Then, once I get my first goal, I can hopefully get another one and so on.
“I don’t think about it too much during the week. It’s more on game day. It’s completely different because in training you can score loads of goals but you might not get those situations in a match. Do you take your opportunity to score and then miss it? You get far more chances to score in training.
“I would say there’s a bit of hesitation when I’m in the position to shoot, but I’m still looking for my first goal so I want to be positive. I’m more likely to take a shot than lay it off. It would be a great kickstart if I could get a goal tomorrow.
Carrick has yet to start a match for Hearts this season, but can boast impressive statistics when he does make the starting line-up. He started five times last season and finished in the winning team on three of those occasions.
“I want to get back to playing and not thinking about goals as much. I want to link up more and hopefully goals will come from that,” he continued.
“At the moment I’ve got nine goals from 13 appearances in the under-20s this season, so I’m happy with that. My confidence is quite high in the under-20s and I want to take that into the first team.
“I’m gradually getting more game time, which is good and is helping build my confidence. Hopefully I can bring what I’m doing in the under-20s into the first team.”
Like many of his academy colleagues, Carrick is still adapting to the ways of the first-team world. This season’s promotion has been an enjoyable but eye-opening experience and is unlikely to get any easier tomorrow given the experience within Motherwell’s defence.
“The difference for me is the physical side of it,” explained Carrick. “First-team guys are more experienced, they know what to do to stop you getting on the ball and stop you basically having an impact. They are more physical and they know how to use that. Those little tackles and things make a difference.
“I’ve mostly played through the middle as a lone striker or up front with someone, so I can have a partner to link up with. I’m not exactly the tallest or the biggest so it’s a lot harder playing through the middle by yourself for the first team compared to youth level. I think I definitely need to play with somebody who is bigger and who can win the flick-ons. Someone who I can link up with and develop a good understanding with would be ideal.
“The only way to get better is to be playing in the first team and get used to it. Then, eventually, I’ll know how to cope with it. I had a knee injury and then my foot and that’s slowed the process down for me a bit. It’s taken me a bit longer to get my fitness and sharpness back, but I think I’m getting there now. I’m feeling a lot sharper now I’ve got my fitness back and I’m ready to go.”
The need for experience to guide youngsters like Carrick has led to calls for the Scottish Professional Football League to lift Hearts’ registration ban. Administrators BDO are making a formal appeal to league officials to relax the sanction placed on the club for entering administration, although that is likely to fall on deaf ears.
For the moment, Carrick and the rest continue without much experience to help out, save for Ryan Stevenson, Jamie Hamill and Jamie MacDonald. The player believes there are positives and negatives to the situation. “It’s probably a bit of both,” he said. “It’s good getting the experience of what it’s like to play in the first team in the Premiership. It’s also a bit negative because you don’t have many people to give you guidance on the pitch.
“You just need to listen to the manager and stick to what he is asking you to do. You need to shut everything else out and concentrate on your job. I’d still say this is definitely a good grounding to get. How many young players are getting a great opportunity like this to go and play in the Premiership for Hearts? It’s a great chance to have.
“The manager has been great, telling me what I’ve got to do and what I need to do. If I can do these things, hopefully I can push to start more games and get more involved in the first team.
“It would mean less opportunities but it would be great for the club. It’s more important for the club to survive than to give me more opportunities. You want to see the club doing better by bringing in players who can lift the team and all the players.”
Even if Hearts slide into the Championship this summer, Carrick intends to stay. “I’m very happy here and I want to stay here as long as I can. This is where I want to be. From now it’s about working hard every day and trying to push to keep progressing.”