Gary Locke is adamant that a couple of experienced figureheads in the mould of Andy Webster would have smoothed the task of introducing a raft of youngsters to the Hearts team this season.
With Jamie Hamill and Ryan Stevenson, the only two outfield players over 22 years old, both playing further up the pitch, the Hearts manager has had to rely on an ultra-young defence with no genuine leadership.
As he reflected on his Tynecastle reign so far, the manager rued the lack of dominant and vocal players left at the club to help ease the youngsters’ transition from Under-20 football to the Scottish Premiership. “The coaching manuals certainly don’t teach you how to chuck a youth team into the Premiership, that’s for sure,” he joked. “It was always going to be really difficult because there’s a massive gap between the Under-20s and the first team. It’s a completely different level altogether.
“One or two of the young boys have done particularly well, and there are others who have found it more difficult and been in and out the team.
“The difficulty I have is that, if I see a problem with the back four, I can’t go and make wholesale changes, for example. I’ve tried all season not to make excuses, but if we had been able to retain Andy Webster, it would have made a huge difference. He brings that bit of calmness, composure and experience, which is one thing we’ve definitely lacked.
“We do as much as we possibly can on the training pitch to make them better and I think there has definitely been an improvement in the majority of the younger players, but there’s only so much, as a coaching team, you can do. When young players are on the pitch, it makes a big difference if they’ve got some experience beside them to guide them through, like I had when I came through as a young player.”
Locke can only look on enviously at his Dundee United counterpart, Jackie McNamara, who has been able to blood a host of promising youngsters over the past year in the knowledge that he has plenty experienced campaigners alongside them to guide them through matches.
“Dundee United are a perfect example of a team getting the mix right,” he explained. “They’ve got some fantastic young players but they also have experienced players, like John Rankin and Paul Paton, who have a massive influence on the team and do a lot of stuff that goes unnoticed in terms of talking to people on the pitch. That’s what experienced players bring to the table and we’ve just not had that.”