Gary locke is optimistic that reaching the SFA Youth Cup final will provide Hearts’ youngsters with fresh impetus as they bid to continue their impressive recent form in the Premiership.
Despite being relegated on the last weekend before the split, his team are in fine fettle, having collected seven points from their last three matches.
And Locke was buoyed further when he saw a raft of prominent young first-team members play their part as the Under-20s swatted aside their Kilmarnock counterparts 3-0 in Saturday’s Youth Cup semi-final. The Hearts manager is hopeful that the mouthwatering prospect of a final against Rangers next month – the date and venue are yet to be confirmed – will have a positive effect on the likes of Callum Paterson, Billy King, Sam Nicholson and Dale Carrick, who are all set to start for the first team against Ross County on Saturday a week after their Youth Cup exploits.
“It was a disappointment not to have a first-team game at the weekend because we wanted to continue our wee run but the good thing is that so many of the squad played in the Youth Cup game anyway so they’ve kept themselves ticking over,” said Locke. “The final will give all the boys involved an extra wee incentive for the rest of the season. It’s something for them to look forward to.”
Locke was thrilled to see his friend and trusty ally, Robbie Neilson, guide the team to the final just six months after replacing Darren Murray as Under-20s coach. The Hearts manager was also encouraged by just how much superior the Tynecastle youngsters looked compared to their Kilmarnock counterparts as a result of their extra involvement with the first-team this season.
“I’m delighted for Robbie to get to a final in his first season in the job,” said Locke, who won the Youth Cup as a Hearts player back in 1993. “I’m even happier for the players because it’s been a long, hard season for them.
“I think all of the fans who were at the game will have seen that our youngsters looked really strong, really fit and really sharp. It shows that working with the first team is helping improve them quicker than most other youngsters.
“We were certainly quietly confident because the majority of the boys that played have been either training or playing with the first team. But it’s a good achievement because they’ve only been to the final a few times and they’ve not won it for 14 years.”
Hearts’ Under-20s are back in action tonight when they face title-chasing Celtic at New Victoria Park in Newtongrange (7pm kick-off).