HEARTS fans fretting over the planned cull of many of the club’s established senior players next month and the subsequent need for manager Paulo Sergio to rely on teenagers may find solace in the words of Darren Murray.
The Tynecastle clearout has already begun, with fringe first-teamers Janos Balogh, Calum Elliott, and Jason Thomson told they can leave, but fans will fear if key players like Andy Webster and Ryan Stevenson re-assess their futures. While the replacement of such experienced full internationalists will not be achieved easily, supporters concerned about the consequences of the club’s plans to be both financially-prudent and reliant on youth academy products in the first team will be comforted by a reminder from under-19 coach Murray – when Hearts have been forced to bring in youngsters to make up the numbers on previous occasions, some remarkable talent has emerged.
“Some years back this club had a lot of older guys and they introduced John Robertson and players of that ilk,” Murray told www.hydc.co.uk, the website of the club’s youth development committee. “That was the easiest time to get players into the Hearts team, because the lack of finance meant they had to do it. In the last four or five years when I’ve been involved it’s probably been the hardest time to get them in because there’s been so many experienced players around.
“On their development, I personally think that there has got to be a pathway through to the first team, where the only players in your way are those who are already first-team regulars. For the really good young players, you see that pathway and you see someone sitting on the bench and you think, ‘I’m every bit as good as him’.
“Because of the number of football players at the club, for too many young players there just isn’t that pathway at the moment but, if we can get players moved on, then the pathway becomes clearer for the good young ones. Instead of thinking ‘I might be used’, they will now think ‘I have a real chance here’.
“If you have 25 or more first-team players, how are the young lads going to get through? If one experienced player goes out then they can just put in another experienced player in. That’s what it’s been like here for a number of years because the squad is so big.”
Kevin McHattie’s temporary move to Alloa Athletic earlier this week means the diaspora of current Hearts employees is now spread across all four senior Scottish leagues. While left-back McHattie attempts to help Paul Hartley’s Wasps push for promotion from the Third Division, a similarly ambitious East Fife in the league above are spurred on by the goals of Rob Ogleby and the defensive qualities of goalkeeper Mark Ridgers and Matthew Park. In the First Division, Gordon Smith, who recently joined Hamilton Accies, has been instantly pitted into a relegation scrap with the familiar quintet of Jason Holt, David Smith, Jamie Walker, Danny Thomson and Denis Prychynenko, all at Raith Rovers.
Murray admits that the anticipated cull of senior players may prove so swingeing that on-loan youngsters such as Holt, the reigning SPL under-19 player of the year, may be required to return to Hearts if only to ensure that on a matchday all first-team berths – starters and substitutes – are filled.
“Come January, you don’t know how many players will leave from the first team so we had to get these boys ready,” said Murray. “Whether they all came back or not in January will be open to debate whether the manager wants them with the first-team squad, or whether we need them in the first-team squad because of numbers. We will need to wait until then to make the call on that. For me the boys are better playing first-team football.
“I’m an optimist. I’d like to think that Jason Holt, Jamie Walker and David Smith could play in the Hearts first team. Denis Prychynenko has got to have a chance. Rob Ogleby has been scoring goals at East Fife. Mark Ridgers has definitely got a good chance.”
This time next month, it is expected a domino effect will rumble throughout Riccarton with considerable consequences. Indeed it has already begun, albeit on a lesser scale, and with the imminent departure of players being paid thousands each week comes an opportunity for secondary school pupils Sam Nicholson and Adam King, both 16, as well as 15-year-old Jordan McGhee to take one step closer to first-team football with a place in the under-19 team.
It is assumed that those being dispatched to serve their first-team apprenticeships on loan at other clubs are being primed for senior duty, and there is justifiable excitement building among many fans at the prospect of young talent such as Holt and the forward pair of Smiths graduating to the first team.
While a large proportion of the club’s teenage contingent have shown sufficient promise to be considered for such a promotion soon, says Murray, there is also a wealth of potential ready to emerge from the shadow of Holt and Co. Murray regards 6ft 2in Callum Paterson as the raw prototype of a modern central defender, while Billy King and Sam Nicholson, as well as 18-year-olds Ryan Stewart and Fraser Mullen, have all excelled at under-19 level.
If there are players among his squad who are not yet prepared for promotion to the first team, Murray has been heartened by proposals for an under-20 league to replace the current under-19 setup. Senior defender Ryan McGowan, 22, recently argued that the disposal of a Reserve League had hurt player development, the young Australian defender strongly arguing the case that “not a lot of 19-year-olds are in the first team in the SPL”.
But, given a future that comprises a more suitable youth setup and a flood of skilled young players eager for SPL football, the pieces expected to patch up wounded Hearts now look to be falling neatly into place.