Mixed emotions consume Gavin Reilly as his first year at Hearts draws to a close. The striker is frustrated at not playing more often, but nonetheless content that he made the right choice swapping Queen of the South for Tynecastle.
Fourteen starts and five goals are a modest return from a player in his first year of top-flight football. Reilly feels he would have scored more had he played more and admits irritation at the amount of time spent sitting on the substitutes’ bench.
He signed a three-year contract last summer and has no regrets about the decision to join Hearts. A European debut awaits next month and he already feels a more rounded footballer due to extra training sessions at Riccarton.
He may find himself back on the bench for tonight’s penultimate league match against Aberdeen at Pittodrie. The 23-year-old was replaced by Juanma Delgado at half-time against Ross County on Saturday, one of several instances throughout the season where he has felt slightly aggrieved being taken off.
His attitude is simple: Keep working hard and use everything learned this year to make a bigger impact next season.
“There have been highs and lows. Going from playing every week, it’s been a wee bit frustrating coming in for a couple of games then coming out,” the forward told the Evening News. “I’ve been waiting for long periods to play games. I was told that when I arrived, but it’s just the mental process. I feel I’ve done well when I’ve played and I’ve taken my chances. I’m just hoping for some more chances next season.
“You just have to train like every day is your last. Put the work in and, when you get a chance, take it. As I said, I feel I’ve done that when I’ve been playing. It’s frustrating being taken out of the team but that’s part of football. I’ve just got to keep working away and see where it takes me.
“I’m definitely better equipped for this level now. Coming in last year, it was all new and I adapted to it. I did go through a wee low period where I wasn’t playing much and possibly not performing. By the turn of the year, I thought I was more than ready and showed I was more than capable. It’s another season next year and I’ve got more knowledge of the Premiership now. I’ve also got more knowledge of the club and the different training. Hopefully I’ll be ready to go for next season.”
It would be a mistake to assume Reilly is angry with the Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson. The pair maintain open lines of communication and hold regular talks about game time and overall development.
“I’ve had a couple of chats with him. I think it’s good to keep in communication with him,” said Reilly. “There’s nothing wrong with going and having a normal conversation. He’s been open and honest with me, which I appreciate. I’m still enjoying it here. Hopefully next season I can kick on a bit more.
“Robbie feels I’ve improved since I’ve come here, which is good to hear. He says I’m at a bigger club than where I was at Queen of the South and it’s a bigger squad. I need to expect that things are going to be rotated more rather than playing week in, week out, like I did at Queens.”
All the same, being hauled off at half-time when you aren’t carrying an injury would irk most players.
“From a personal point of view, it was frustrating on Saturday,” continued Reilly. “I felt I was growing into the game well and then I was taken off. The gaffer’s got ideas in his head about what he wants to do to win games. As I player, I’ve just to respect that. There’s no point going in the huff. I’ve got to use it as motivation for my next opportunity.”
There is no question Reilly’s physical stature is enhanced as a Hearts player. Double training sessions and gym work have improved his upper body strength and allowed him to compete better against some of Scotland’s more brutish centre-backs. Like everything else, the demands of the Hearts training schedule took some getting used to initially.
“The amount of training we do here compared to what I was doing at Queen of the South just doesn’t compare. I was full-time at Queens, but it’s nothing compared to this. It was hard to begin with but my body has adapted. I felt that, once I got going, I was doing the business if you like.
“At Queen of the South, we trained Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. We were off Wednesdays and Sundays. It was mainly single sessions with a double session on a Tuesday. Here, there are a lot more double sessions and gym sessions. It’s a more physical league and you need to do that.
“I did gym work on my own at Queens, but the stuff at Hearts is more specific for football. I’ve enjoyed it but, at first, my body was sore the next day after these sessions. Once I grasped it, it’s done nothing but benefit me.
“This move has helped me on and off the field. I feel as if I’ve developed here. I’m getting fitter, I’m stronger, I’m at a big club. It’s been frustrating not playing but I don’t regret making the decision to come here.”
Reaching the next level was his intention when he left Palmerston Park last June. That platform has now been achieved with Hearts preparing for Europa League qualifiers this summer.
European involvement is an extra bonus for Reilly, who left Queen of the South merely intent on establishing himself in the Scottish Premiership. The Europa League challenge will be another level altogether and even more squad rotation is likely as a result.
Reilly is hoping to benefit as Neilson will need to use all first-team players to cope if Hearts manage to progress towards the group phase.
“It will be Thursday-Sunday at the start of the season if we’ve got European games. As a footballer, that’s what you look for.
“The squad will probably be bigger because, with the amount of games, it will be more demanding. That gives you more chance to play so I’m looking forward to that.”