Sandy Clark’s fingerprints are all over the pre-match narrative for tomorrow’s crunch match between Kilmarnock and Hearts at Rugby Park.
The Killie assistant was the man who gave the respective managers, Allan Johnston and Gary Locke, their first taste of first-team football when he was in charge of Hearts some 20 years ago. Nearly a decade later, Clark, also a former Hearts striker, got to pass on his expertise to another promising young footballer when he coached a nine-year-old Danny Wilson at Murieston Boys Club in Livingston.
Wilson, of course, has gone on to become captain of Hearts after coming through the ranks at Rangers and then moving down to Liverpool. However, the 21-year-old centre-back will always owe a debt of gratitude to Clark, with whom he remains in touch, for helping instil in him the basic values that helped him on the road to becoming a professional footballer.
“I think Sandy had just left St Johnstone at that time, so he was still used to working in a first-team environment,” recalls Wilson, now 21. “It wouldn’t have been the same for him working with kids like us, but he tried to give us the same ethics that he would give a first team, so we all benefited from it. There were quite a few good players in that team. Kyle Jacobs was in that team and he’s at Kilmarnock now and his brothers are at Livingston. Sandy’s son Nicky [now at Rangers] and [former Rangers player] Darren Cole were also there.
“It’s obviously not solely down to Sandy that so many of us made it, but there are a good few of us who have a lot to thank him for. He also brought the gaffer through, so he’s clearly good at working with youngsters. I only played under him for a year or two, but he was of great benefit to me and I’ll always thank him for that. Any time I see Sandy, I’ll always stop and talk to him. He stays not far from me in Bathgate – I bumped into him last weekend actually. I know his family well and when we speak now, it’s usually about family, rather than football. Hopefully I’ll catch up with him again tomorrow after us collecting three points.”
Clark and Jacobs will not be the only familiar faces greeting Wilson at Rugby Park. When the defender first broke through at Rangers, he became a team-mate of Kris Boyd. The SPL’s record goalscorer his since wound up back at Kilmarnock, his first club, after losing his way following his Ibrox exit, which came, ironically, at the same time – summer 2010 – as Wilson left for Liverpool. The Hearts captain knows all too well that Boyd represents the main danger to their hopes of a first victory in two months.
“He’s a great guy, somebody I always got on well with,” explains Wilson. “He was at the peak of his powers when I was breaking into the Rangers first team. He’d just overtaken Henrik Larsson as the top scorer in the SPL. Every team needs a goalscorer and he was one of the best I’ve played with.
“People try and knock him because he didn’t play as big a part outside the box, but when he was in the box there was no doubting his qualities. You have to be extra switched on when you’re against a guy like Boydy. He might not be in the game, but then he can pop up with two goals if you give him an opportunity. We’ll not focus on him too much but when the ball’s around him, we’ll need to make sure we deny him space and limit his opportunities. We had a good battle last time we played down at Rugby Park.”
That game, when John Sutton scored the only goal of the match back in April, was the last time Hearts won away in the league. In the intervening period, the Gorgie side have endured more agony than Wilson would care to remember. As captain, he has taken recent setbacks in the battle against relegation particularly badly as his side, despite holding their own in most games, have picked up only one point from their last six matches. His younger colleagues are also feeling the anguish of seeing potential victories suddenly turn into defeat against the likes of Ross County and Motherwell.
“I take it home with me,” he said, when asked how defeats affect him. “I sit there mulling it over and I can’t get it out my head sometimes. It’s going to be a long season and there will be more nights like those, but hopefully there will also be better nights ahead. Immediately after a defeat everybody’s really disappointed, but then as soon as we come into training on a Monday, it’s gone and we start looking forward to the next game.
“I think it’s a good thing that the boys are taking it so hard when we drop points, because hopefully that’ll give them the extra determination not to do that. They’re learning the hard way. They’ve been thrown in at the deep end and for the most part they’ve done great. It’s just the last few games where we’ve not picked up as many points as we’d have liked.”
Wilson, however, is adamant that Hearts are not far away from turning the tide. He added: “It’s frustrating that we’ve not been picking up points because we’re not getting outclassed by anyone. If you look at the last few games, a lot of goals we concede are coming from our own mistakes.
“We’re going over our mistakes in training, working hard to rectify them every day, so hopefully we can put things right this weekend. We’ve had a tough couple of weeks but if we can get a good result tomorrow and then go down to Easter Road and knock Hibs out the League Cup, then all of a sudden things will be looking a bit rosier.”