Teenage striker Robbie Buchanan has been challenged to make the most of his earlier-than-expected opportunity in Hearts’ first team.
The 18-year-old Glaswegian began the season seventh in the pecking order for an attacking berth, with Osman Sow, Soufian El Hassnaoui, Dale Carrick, James Keatings and fellow teenagers Gary Oliver and Ali Roy seemingly ahead of him.
However, with Oliver having been farmed out on loan to Stenhousemuir, Carrick and Keatings sidelined by injury, and Roy loaned out to Preston Athletic after recovering from a minor injury of his own, there was a striker vacancy needing filled on the Hearts bench for their home game against Dumbarton a week past Saturday.
After some eye-catching form in the Under-20 side throughout September and the early part of October, young Buchanan was the obvious candidate in the eyes of head coach Robbie Neilson.
His only previous first-team involvement had been as an unused substitute in a Premiership defeat at Inverness early last season and as a second-half substitute in the 4-1 League Cup defeat at Livingston in August. Neilson was pondering putting him on when Hearts led Dumbarton 3-0, but that plan was put on hold when the Sons pulled one back.
Buchanan only had to wait another week for his league bow, however. With Hearts down to ten men and trying desperately to find a way back into Sunday’s Edinburgh derby at Easter Road, it spoke volumes about how highly regarded he is that Neilson saw fit to send him on in place of Billy King in a bid to salvage the game in the last three minutes. He may have only had a few touches, but he looked enthusiastic and certainly didn’t appear overawed by the magnitude of the occasion.
Neilson is hoping the youngster can thrive on his cameo outing against Hibs and force his way into the reckoning long term. “I’m delighted for Robbie,” said the head coach. “He’s a good kid who works hard – he’s been doing well. He’s got good movement, he’s a threat going forward, he works hard going back and he’s got good ability in the box.
“We’ve still got guys to come back – Dale and Keats, for example, are ahead of him at the moment. But he’ll be round about the first-team squad this year. With all the young boys, the first thing we ask of them is hard work, but if he keeps working hard, he’s got a chance.”
Meanwhile, after a couple of days off in the wake of Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Hibs, the Hearts players returned to training today for what Neilson promised would be an intense few days of fitness work, akin to “a mini pre-season”. With no game to prepare for this weekend, the head coach intends to spend the remainder of this week focusing on topping up fitness levels before returning to a normal training structure ahead of the home game against Raith Rovers in the Championship on Saturday week.
“We’ll do three hard days of pre-season over the next few days, then we’re off for the weekend and then back to the grind again next week,” said Neilson. “It’ll be fitness work, like a mini pre-season. It will be hard. We’ll have two days of hard running and hard ball-work and hard games to get our fitness levels back up again. They’ll get tested on Friday, then have the weekend off and then it will be back to focusing on Raith Rovers again.”
Neilson has placed significant emphasis on ensuring the Hearts squad is in peak condition this season and has praised his players for their willingness to take part in extra sessions to better themselves. So far, the new ideas he has implemented appear to have paid off, with the Jambos sitting seven points clear at the top of the Championship. “The boys have been great,” he continued. “I’ve been really pleased with them – they do everything we ask of them. They’ve bought into everything we’re trying to do. We’re explaining to them all the time why we’re doing different things and what benefits we hope to get out of it. They’ve responded to it and you can see the fitness levels in the amount of late goals we’re getting. Against Hibs on Sunday, for example, we kept going and in 92 minutes we got the goal.”