If the evidence of the past month is anything to go by, Dario Zanatta looks to be on a one-way path towards more prominent first-team involvement at Hearts.
After having his appetite whetted with an earlier-than-expected debut appearance as a substitute in the 4-0 win away to Partick Thistle on Halloween, the 18-year-old Canadian forward had to content himself with a regular flow of development league action as his first-team involvement was subsequently restricted to ‘unused sub’ status for a couple of months.
Since being thrown on late in the 3-2 home win over Dundee United two days after Christmas, however, Zanatta has gradually begun to establish himself as Robbie Neilson’s second-half go-to man. He has been sent on in each of Hearts’ last five league games, enjoying increased exposure on a game-to-game basis. From being given a three-minute cameo against United, Zanatta was trusted with a full 45 minutes against Hamilton Accies on Sunday after replacing Billy King. He helped his ten-man team to a 0-0 draw and might even have won it for them with a couple of late headers, one of which came back off the crossbar.
“It gives you a big boost every time you get on, but especially in a situation like’s Sunday when I was sent on at half-time with the team down to ten men,” he said. “That shows the gaffer has confidence in me.
“It’s the longest I’ve played so far for the first team so I knew when I went on it was going to be a shift. My legs felt pretty heavy for the first 20 minutes, but after that I felt okay. I was told to play out wide and then come in and play off Osman [Sow] and help him out up front when I could. I also had to be defensively sound and help out the guys at the back. I really enjoyed playing the second half, it was a good experience for me. Everyone defended well and stuck in. It was a well- deserved point.
“I wish I had scored one of my headers at the end. My heading is something I need to work a little bit on. I should have done better. Next time, though ...”
Head coach Robbie Neilson said last week that Hearts had pondered loaning Zanatta out, but then had a rethink as a result of the rapid progress he was making while coming off the bench for the first team. The attacker, who can play out wide or as a centre-forward, has been buoyed by the acclaim that has come his way from Hearts’ management and is hopeful of playing some part in this Saturday’s lunchtime showdown with Inverness at the Caledonian Stadium.
“It’s been a real boost for me to be involved in the first team so early on,” he continued. “The gaffer, Stevie Crawford and Liam Fox have been very supportive of me. They just tell me to stay level-headed and keep working hard. They give me good feedback and they seem happy with what I’m doing so far. I’ve still got a long way to go before I’m playing consistently in the team but if I can keep getting a few minutes in every game, it will hopefully help me push on.
“It’s been going well for me in the 20s and if I keep playing well for them, it’s going to help me get more minutes for the first team. I feel like I’m benefitting from getting more minutes for the first team. I’d love to be involved again against Inverness, but I’ll just have to train hard this week and see what happens.”
Zanatta joined Hearts last summer after impressing during a trial at Riccarton. The former Vancouver Whitecaps youngster has scored eight goals for the development team and now made six first-team appearances. His time in Edinburgh has far exceeded expectations.
“It’s been overwhelming to play as much as I have for a team that’s going so well near the top of the league,” he said. “It’s hard to believe I only came over here on trial last summer, and it’s all taken off from there. I knew when I came at the start of the season that I would have a chance to push on at Hearts if I worked hard and it’s gone as well as I could have imagined so far. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.”
Zanatta has had to leave his family and friends behind in order to pursue his dream of a career in top-level European football, but he has no regrets about moving across the Atlantic. “My parents were over a few months ago and they saw me play a couple of games for the 20s, which they were pretty excited about,” he said. “They’ve not seen me play for the first team yet. They stream all my games online through Hearts TV. I miss my family, but it’s been worth it so far.”
Zanatta has played a part in a run of games that has seen Hearts intensify their grip on third place in the Premiership. Although still familiarising himself with the Scottish football landscape, he is well aware that the upcoming Scottish Cup tie against Hibs is looming large over everything else, in the eyes of the supporters at least. “Things have been going well for us in the last few weeks,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of good wins at home to Aberdeen and Motherwell and now we’ve come away with a draw from an away game where we’ve played 50 minutes with ten men. We’ve got to be pretty happy with that.
“We’ve also got the cup game against Hibs coming up soon. Plenty people have been telling me about how important that game is. To see the line of people wanting tickets and the fact it was sold out within just a few days is unbelievable. Hopefully I can be involved in that one.”