GAVIN REILLY stands in an empty and echoing Tynecastle Stadium, surrounded by freshly grown grass bathed in summer sunshine. This is the big time for a 22-year-old whose only football home has been the humble Palmerston Park. He is hungry, motivated and ready for a crack at the Ladbrokes Premiership with Hearts after signing a three-year contract.
A five-year apprenticeship at Queen of the South served Reilly well. He’s done the hard shift on freezing midweek nights at Alloa and blustery afternoons in Cowdenbeath. Now comes the opportunity to establish himself at the highest level.
He managed 15 goals last season’s Championship, 12 the year before and 13 the year before that. He is a consistent scorer, young, Scottish, determined and eager to impress. These very attributes persuaded Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson to pay Queens a modest development fee to release Reilly.
Yesterday, the player imagined playing Premiership football at a packed Tynecastle. He turned professional in 2010 after coming through Queen of the South’s youth system with a burning desire to reach the top. Finally, he is here. Hearts’ promotion to the top flight came via a record winning margin in the Championship and Reilly is delighted to be making the jump with them.
“I’ve wanted to play at this level for the last couple of seasons and now it’s happened,” he said. “I want to get a good pre-season under my belt and then establish myself as a main striker both at Hearts and in the Premiership.” He was made to wait as negotiations over the development fee dragged on between Queens and Hearts, however.
“The hold-up was the fact Queen of the South were due compensation because I’m still under 23. It was a case of trying to agree that and some personal stuff. I always knew it would go through. It’s done and dusted now so I can put that behind me and concentrate on playing for Hearts.
“This is where I wanted to come. To come to a club this size with an exceptional fanbase and a brilliant stadium and training facilities will help me progress as a player. It feels like the right choice for me. I was on holiday in Rhodes while it was dragging on and I was back and forth with my agent over email, so my girlfriend didn’t take too kindly to that! I enjoyed my holiday but at the back of my mind I was thinking ‘is this going to get over the line?’”
It must have felt slightly surreal for Reilly as he finally held a maroon scarf above his head yesterday. The transfer took several weeks to conclude, but that didn’t stop him pondering what might lie ahead. His aspirations for the next stage of his career are made clear.
“Hearts cruised the Championship last year and with the squad we’ve got here, although the aim is to make the top six, I feel we could go even a wee bit further than that. We’re a newly-promoted team so I don’t want to get too far ahead, but from what I’ve seen of this team and from playing against them, I don’t see why we couldn’t get a European spot. They were able to change things really well last season [during matches]. They had the passing game and they could carve teams open and they also had the ability to go route one if they had to. That showed with their results.”
It will also be slightly bizarre for Reilly to find himself under Neilson’s tutelage. As a 13-year-old, the boyhood Gretna fan was at Hampden to see his team lose the 2006 Scottish Cup final to Hearts on penalties. He vivdly recalls watching Neilson’s famous tackle on David Graham, which denied Gretna an equaliser with Hearts leading 1-0.
“I watched Gretna when I was younger and then when I was a bit older I was more towards Queens because I was involved with their youth team,” said Reilly. “I went to the Gretna cup final in 2006 and the Queens cup final in 2008. I remember Robbie’s tackle well. I also remember Gavin Skelton hitting the penalty over the bar as well. It’s mad that I was watching Robbie play all those years ago and now he’s coaching me. I’m grateful for the chance he’s given me here.”
The ambition to succeed at the top dates back to some of those cup final disappointments. Reilly explained why Hampden has become something of a nightmare venue for him on a personal note - which he hopes will change now he’s joined Hearts.
“I went to Hampden with my family and friends in 2006, they are all from Grenta. The local community all went and it was a brilliant day out despite the eventual outcome. I would never have thought back then I’d one day sign for Hearts, but hopefully before the end of my contract I’m at a cup final with them.
“I’ve not had many happy Hampden memories to be fair with Gretna and Queens both losing there. I also lost 8-0 to Celtic with Queen of the South Under-19s in the Youth Cup final there. I would like to change that and hopefully do it this season, but I’ll get pre-season done and dusted first, get myself as fit as possible and then take each game in the Premiership as it comes.”
Reilly’s one-step-at-a-time approach should serve him well in the top flight. He’s waited long enough for this opportunity and seems to have the necessary heart to make it work.