Continual improvement should be the aim of any young footballer and there is little doubt Hearts’ youngsters are notably more developed than they were at the start of the season.
It might be too little too late given the club’s relegation to the Championship, but confidence levels within the players have risen visibly of late. So much so that manager Gary Locke feels he is now in charge of a different team.
Convincing wins over Hibs and Partick Thistle and to a spirited draw against Aberdeen support this uprising and it would be churlish to deny Locke some credit. Opinions on the management team at Hearts are varied, but Locke, his assistant Billy Brown and their backroom staff have worked relentlessly on the current playing squad.
Recent evidence of their work lies in the form of Sam Nicholson, Dale Carrick and Billy King. The technical development of that triumvirate is down to Darren Murray, Hearts’ former youth coach, and others within the Riccarton youth academy. Attuning them to first-team football was the responsibility of Locke, Brown and those around them. The manager is out of contract in the summer, while Brown is working for free after Hearts’ administrators BDO refused to renew his monthly agreement. Neither has been distracted by the uncertainty over their futures.
Locke feels the team he is now managing is almost another incarnation of the one which started the season. “I do feel like that, no doubt about it,” he told the Evening News. “We’ve had the opportunity to work with the players. At the start of the season we had a group of very talented players, but they all had different deficiencies. Some weren’t strong enough, some weren’t up to the pace of first-team football, others had a severe lack of experience which you can’t get until you’ve played 20 or 30 times in the first team. They had to learn the hard way.
“A lot of these young lads would be making their mistakes in the under-20s, or they’d be doing well in the under-20s and get promoted to the first team. Unfortunately for us, they’ve had to make these mistakes in the top team and we’ve been punished for it. However, there’s no doubt about it that every single one of our young players is a far better player than they were at the start of this season.”
Is that a touch of vindication for the management team? “That’s the thing. Quietly all season, we’ve worked tirelessly on the training pitch,” continued Locke. “We’ve tried to get them more aware, mostly without the ball, doing things like tracking runners and being in the right positions. Then there’s passing the ball in the right areas of the pitch and trying to be positive all the time. Certainly, over the last month-and-a-half, you can see they’re all improving in that respect.
“The physical side of things has been a massive boost for us. Some players we put in at the start of the season were getting brushed off the ball too easily. That was a negative we looked at and decided we needed to work on. We said we had to get these players in the gym, and in that regard Dave Sykes [Hearts’ sports scientist] has done a great job.
“I don’t want to take all the credit. We have a really good backroom team and they’ve all played their part in these boys improving. The younger goalkeepers have come on and Alan Combe [goalkeeping coach] has played a huge part in that. We’ve all put in a lot of work and we’re now seeing it come to fruition, which is great.
“Over the last six weeks we’ve seen the benefits of all the work that’s gone on which people don’t see – extra hours in the gym with Dale Carrick, Sam Nicholson and Gary Oliver. They’re not getting pushed off the ball so easily now. They look a lot fitter and sharper in games and they look a lot more comfortable in the first-team environment.
“A lot of credit has to go to the players because they wouldn’t get to that level if they didn’t work hard. That’s one area that’s never been a problem.”
Hearts are now keen to plan for the next 12 months and ensure they are ready for a stint in the Championship. Ongoing uncertainty over whether they can avoid liquidation is holding everything up, both on and off the field. In a playing sense, Locke is adamant that the development should continue.
“You’ve got to look to the future,” he continued. “Not every one of the young boys are going to go on and have full careers with Hearts. We hope most of them will but even if we’re developing them to go and do reasonably well somewhere else, then there’s a benefit from it. You look at all the young players we’ve inherited. I think they are far better players now than what they were at the start of the season. It has been difficult asking young players to do a man’s job. Some have done a lot better than others but the majority of them have done well.”
In the meantime, Locke believes there is still plenty to play for between now and the end of the season. The five post-split fixtures begin on Saturday week, when Ross County visit Tynecastle, and Locke aims to continue the recent prosperity.
“I said to the players on Saturday that our season certainly isn’t finished just because we’re relegated. We’ve been on a decent wee run and they’ve all taken great confidence form the last three or four games. We have to keep that going and make sure we win as many of our remaining games as we can for the supporters. The backing they’ve given us all season has been tremendous and we don’t want to let them down. There will be no-one switching off because they are obviously playing for their futures as well.
“Last week, when we beat Partick Thistle 4-2, was as well as we’ve played all season, but at the same time there was a lot of disappointment because we’d been relegated. Over the last few weeks we’ve realised how big a task it was to stay in the league. It’s just important now that we keep going, keep improving and hopefully all the players will kick on again next season. If they put in those performances next season then we’ll win more games than we’ll lose.”