Four goals in his last six appearances denote Dale Carrick as Hearts’ man of the moment.
He is almost literally eating up the progress chart as part of a diet plan which has transformed him from skinny shirt filler into an imposing centre-forward.
The 20-year-old’s rise to prominence seems to have taken place overnight. Having been a bit-part player for much of this season, he is now the focal point of Hearts’ forward line.
The proficiency is being fuelled by an increased food intake. Carrick is eating every two hours, he’s beasting the gym up to five times a week and he’s terrorising some of Scotland’s most accomplished defenders as a result.
“I’ve increased the gym to four or five times a week and I’ve tried to eat a lot more food to do that,” says Carrick. “We do a lot of training and it takes a lot of energy out of you. This way, when you go to the gym, you’re not as tired.
“It’s been quite a big increase. I’m a big eater now. I eat roughly every two hours just to keep everything going, otherwise I just feel I’ve got no energy. I need to keep eating and it seems to be helping. I’ve still got my pace, which I’m quite happy with.
“Most of it is just protein through chicken or steak, then there’s nuts and vegetables and things like that. It’s mostly all good. You do have cheat days from time to time, but you only have a cheat day once every two weeks or so.”
Which begs the question, what does he munch on one of these cheat days? “Everything,” he laughs. “I wouldn’t go for a McDonald’s or anything but I’ll get a takeaway, like a Chinese.”
The plan is certainly working. Carrick’s prospering has relegated on-loan West Ham United striker Paul McCallum to the substitutes’ bench and allowed makeshift forward Callum Paterson to retreat to his favoured position at right-back.
Hearts have had to adapt their playing style to suit Carrick, but results in recent weeks – four wins and a draw from the last five games – more than vindicate the change.
“Since big Callum’s not up front, they don’t need to fire the ball up to him thinking he’s going to win flick-ons,” explains Carrick. “Because I’m a lot smaller than Callum, they know they have to play it in to feet instead or right in behind the defence for me to run on to. We have changed our style of play.
“I’m definitely feeling the benefit of it. I’m starting to understand the role a lot better. I’m using my body better and I understand what to do during games now. I would say I’ve improved quite a lot and it’s probably shown over the last six games or so.
“I’m looking more of a goal threat now, I’m holding the ball up and I’m challenging for things. I think I’ve progressed quite well. My favourite position is up top, where I can make runs in behind defenders or link up with a fellow striker and get goals that way. That’s what I’ve always preferred.”
Lone strikers, by their very definition, must undertake a tireless amount of work. Carrick admits that last Sunday’s win over Hibs at Easter Road left him exhausted.
“Mentally and physically, I was drained after the derby. I just put everything into the game and I was happy with that. I’ve spent time this week trying to get my body right again, eating the right food and getting the right energy in. I’ve been doing stretches and making sure my body gets moving again to get ready for this weekend against Kilmarnock.”
Despite the goals and subsequent praise from team-mates, coaches and supporters, Carrick still enjoys relative anonymity around Edinburgh. “I would say I’ve done all right. I’ve started to get goals and do my part for the team. I’ve not really had many people come up to me in the street. I’ve stayed quite anonymous really and just kept quiet. I’m just a normal person so I like to stay out of things.”
The quiet life will soon end should his development continue on its upward trajectory. Carrick credits the Hearts manager Gary Locke and his assistant Billy Brown with teaching him what he calls the “ugly side” of football. The lessons have enabled him not only to survive but to thrive at senior level, even when subjected to some of the more brutal challenges.
“They’ve taught us the other side of the game,” says the striker. “We were brought up in the youth academy to play the passing game and keep possession. The gaffer and Billy have taught us the more physical side.
“We realise now there are two sides the game. There’s the nasty side, where you have to be more physical. Then there’s the side where you have the ball and everything is nice.
“You aren’t always going to get that nice side in the first team. They’ve taught us that you need to do the ugly side of football as much as the good side.
“The manager has been very positive with me. He’s told me to keep doing what I’m doing, but he also tells me what I still need to work on. Every day is a school day for me so I’m just trying to work my hardest so that I can get better each day.”
Hearts still have three remaining games in the Premiership before they bow out of the top flight. Sunday sees Kilmarnock visit Tynecastle, with Partick Thistle due there next Wednesday before the season-ending trip to St Mirren on Saturday week.
At the back of Carrick’s mind is next season’s Championship campaign, when he hopes to cement his place as the man to lead the club’s forward line. New players may arrive, but the player is determined they should not stifle his own development.
“There will be tough competition next year and I’d expect the league to be around the same standard so I’m looking forward to it,” he says “I want to stay in the starting line-up, keep my place and get more games at first-team level. That’s my target.”