AN added bonus from Hearts’ League Cup semi-final win is the emergence of a specialist right-back. Fraser Mullen was rightly pleased with his performance against Inverness and today explained his craving for an extended first-team run.
With Jamie Hamill injured, Ryan McGowan now departed and Darren Barr surely better utilised in midfield, the teenager is eager to impose himself in his favoured position. He certainly showcased his credentials at the weekend.
Mullen spoke to the Evening News still brimming with elation at helping Hearts into a national cup final. Saturday was only his second game at senior level, yet the 19-year-old adapted like a seasoned veteran. He has had to bide his time longer than most Riccarton academy graduates, having last played a first-team game over a year ago. That Scottish Cup outing against Auchinleck Talbot was memorable – save for an unfortunate penalty miss – yet it pales in comparison to his latest experience.
Mullen’s shackling of Richie Foran nullified one of Inverness’ most potent weapons, whilst also underlining the youngster’s defensive qualities. His rampaging down the right flank revealed an attacking threat and his passing fed midfielders plenty of the ball. He also delivered the free-kick that produced Hearts’ equalising goal for Michael Ngoo. All things considered, Mullen must now be at the front of the queue for the right-back slot.
Hamill’s cruciate ligament injury last April robbed Hearts of their first-choice for the position and he remains some way off a first-team comeback. Ryan McGowan proved a more than able deputy before moving to China. Callum Paterson and Darren Barr have also filled the role but the absence of a properly schooled right-back has been evident for some time. Mullen believes he can be the solution.
“I felt I did well and at least now the manager knows that, if he needs me, I can do a job,” he said. “Inverness are a physical team so you think about them putting high balls out to Foran. I knew I just had to try and battle with him and fight my corner. I thought I did that. I’d say all the boys did well, so it was a good day for us. It was a real team performance, especially when Scott Robinson was sent off and we went down to ten men. Everybody dug in.
“I’m disappointed I haven’t played since the Auchinleck game, because obviously I’d like to have made more appearances. You just need to keep working hard to try and get in. You watch first-team games and you wish it was you out on the park. You can’t let your head go down, though I need to wait and see if I can stay involved now. I’ll keep working in training, doing what I’ve been doing, and keep my feet on the ground. I knew if I did work hard the gaffer would give me a chance eventually. Hopefully I can get a run in the team, but that’s up to the manager. He’s the man who picks the side. I can only do my best.”
Standing around 5ft 9in, Mullen is not particularly tall. He grew in stature, however, against Inverness. “Obviously it meant a lot to me to be involved. I got a taste of playing in the first team last year and I looked forward to more. I hadn’t played for so long at that level so, when it comes again, you’re buzzing for it and it becomes a really big thing. We were working on shape all last week in training and I was in the starting team on a few of the days. When it came to Friday, that’s when I knew I would be playing. I just tried to prepare myself like I would every other game in the under-20s. I wanted to do everything the same and not think about it too much. I tried to treat it as a normal game.
“I was told by the manager and the coaches just to play, not to think about the game too much and just play the way I usually do. Concentrate and you’ll be alright, that was the message. Before the game, Webby (Andy Webster) said to me not to feel too nervous. He told me the Inverness boys would all feel nervous because it was such a big game. A lot of the younger ones are quiet in the dressing-room before games. They’re just thinking about the game and, obviously, they might be a wee bit nervous.
“When I got out there and heard the fans . . . it was some atmosphere. You try to get your first couple of touches and once you get that you settle down into the game. You can then forget about the crowd and concentrate on your performance. It was quite a physical game and there were some hard tackles. That’s what it’s like at first-team level, you need to try to stand up and be counted and just get in about it.”
He wasn’t found wanting and neither were Hearts. A 1-1 draw after extra-time resulted in a 5-4 win on penalties for the Edinburgh club, who return to Hampden Park for a second cup final in a year when they face St Mirren on March 17. “The atmosphere in the dressing-room was great because we’re all going back to Hampden,” said Mullen. “Last time we went there it was certainly a great day, so the boys are all looking forward to it.
“It’s a great incentive for us because we all have a great chance of playing now. When you’re playing in the first team with all the younger boys, you’re used to them because you’ve played beside them for years in the youth teams.”
The Hearts manager John McGlynn certainly seems open to the idea of keeping faith with Mullen for tomorrow evening’s meeting with Dundee. “Everything is a risk, but Fraser is a natural right-back,” he said. “Everyone knows we lost Ryan McGowan and Darren Barr played right-back in our last couple of games against Hibs and Celtic. He was suspended for Saturday so last week we tried a few things and Fraser looked the best option. From what you see in training, you pick the players who are looking the best. Fraser is great on the ball. Even hitting corner-kicks for us he’s got great delivery – probably better delivery than we’ve had all season.
“Our fear on Saturday was Foran getting into the back post, which he did once in the first half. Other than that, I thought Fraser handled him very well. Andy Webster also paid a bit more attention to that situation. Inverness were always going to kick through towards Foran and we dealt with that very well because we made sure other players were going to compete with Foran for the ball other than Fraser.”