Behind the white facade of Oriam’s performance centre, the Riccarton youth academy is reaching new levels of expertise.
A chat with Hearts youth academy manager Roger Arnott details the extent to which the Edinburgh club are honing and monitoring their teenage players.
Last week saw Hearts open their own performance school at Balerno High, just three miles from the club’s training ground. It is the latest step in the all-encompassing task of trying to manufacture the next generation of top Scottish footballers.
Director of football Craig Levein was involved in the project but Arnott drove it from the outset. Now it has come to fruition, every minute of youth players’ lives will be closely watched by Hearts coaches desperate to help them succeed.
“One of the things we said we would do was create a culture and an environment where we can develop elite footballers – the highest performing footballers for the club. We take a holistic approach to that,” said Arnott.
“Having the performance school allows us to look after their education and we can look after the physical side. The boys are playing games at the weekend, now we have more control over what they’re doing during the week. We know when we can push them and when we need to pull them out.
“With young players, when they’re going through growth spurts and all the other different stages, you need to manage how much activity they are actually doing. If we can push them to our limits, then we track that and make sure we’re not burning them out.
“We can have control over the environment. Having Hearts coaches based at the school means we can ensure the players are coached in the same manner as we coach at the academy. There is the same ethos and that can only benefit the players.”
Hearts won’t do everything, though. Arnott and his array of coaches are keen to devolve a certain level of responsibility to the kids. From first to fourth year, players within Hearts’ age-group teams will attend Balerno and be expected to manage a very tight and demanding schedule.
“The players have to take responsibility for getting to school themselves,” explained Arnott. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons from the SFA’s performance school. Boys like Harry Cochrane, Chris Hamilton and others were at SFA performance schools. We’ve spoken to the SFA and we’ve learned a little bit from Celtic and Rangers as well.
“One of the biggest things is that, when kids are busy, they are usually the ones who are most successful. They have to get up at 5.30am or 6am in the morning, then get a train, a bus or a taxi, do some training before school, then go to lessons, train at our academy at night and go home before starting the process again the next day.
“There is a lot of evidence which shows that pupils who are busy and have to plan their time are the most successful ones.”
The challenge is intense and the investment considerable on Hearts’ part. For those heading up the youth department, the thought of producing another Jamie Walker or Callum Paterson is what drives them forward each day.
“We had been working on the proposal with Balerno for about a year. From the first time I met the head teacher, Neil McCallum, I was absolutely sold on the idea of bringing a partnership to Balerno High. Neil was enthused by the idea of it as well.
“The facilities there are first-class and the school has a good reputation academically. Many of the students are high achievers, so the full package ticked all the boxes for us.
“Initially, we were going to focus on S1s, then we realised there was an opportunity to take in S2s. Since the term started, we’ve taken in a couple of S3s. We’re at 19 at the moment but we won’t be adding any more this year.
“The school are also at capacity and they treat them as pupils, so it’s important we deal with them the same way. We can’t bring any more in.
“We do have an agreement that we will retain ten spaces every year, so we will bring in ten new S1s every year. That will allow us to build the number up. Eventually, we’ll have a maximum of between 30 and 40 players based there across S1 to S4.”
Hearts have cast their net across central Scotland to identify the best raw talent to bring inside their academy. Many of those youngsters will now be schooled just a short pre-season run away from Riccarton.
“We’ve got some players from Glasgow, Fife, Edinburgh, East Lothian, West Lothian, Falkirk,” said Arnott.
“They come from everywhere and they have to make their own way to school in the morning. Some go by train and then bus. We also have a taxi pick-up for a few of them.”
Detailed planning continues as Hearts try to stay one step ahead ahead of their youth development rivals.