DARREN MURRAY refuses to wallow in the glory of 11 Hearts academy players being called up by Scotland. The club’s player development manager is already working to nurture a new generation. Each day at Riccarton throughout the summer holidays, he coaches a dedicated batch of schoolkids hoping to become the next Jason Holt, Jamie Walker or Callum Paterson.
Hearts players Brad McKay, Jack Hamilton, Kevin McHattie, Holt, Walker and David Smith are in the Scotland Under-21 squad to face England on Tuesday. Adam King and Jordan McGhee were called up by Scotland’s Under-19s for a training camp, while Sean McKirdy, Leon Jones and Greg Page will travel to Russia for a tournament with the Scotland Under-16s.
Murray’s message is that there are more to come. Coaching methods and player development are monitored closely by the Scottish Football Association, and their most recent age-group selections show overwhelming faith in what is happening at Riccarton. With so many youngsters fast-tracked into Gary Locke’s first team following the onset of administration, there are gaps to be filled at youth level. Murray is already working on the replacements.
“The Hearts supporters can rest assured we are working on more,” he told the Evening News. “I’ve got a group of 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, half of which are in with us during the summer holidays. We’ve been working with them morning and afternoon on similar things to what the young players who are now in the first team worked on a few years ago. They went through a process where we tried to get them to understand the game. The young ones coming in now are just starting.
“The three key areas we work on in training are: speed of the ball, speed of movement and speed of thought. One of the other things is affecting the next pass. Not the pass you’ve played, but how you can affect the next pass. All these players – the Holts, the Walkers etc – have all been taught that.
“Each afternoon we’ll train beside the academy and there is a row of young first-team players watching these young guys go through exactly what they went through. They’re watching so they can pass on advice. The 19-year-olds and the 20-year-olds speak to the 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds to give them pointers, which is fantastic to see.
“You can’t stand still in football. You must always think about how you can get better for the next batch. I class myself as a developer and over the last few years a number of players have gone through to the Hearts first team. I’m happy with the work I’ve put in and I’m extremely proud of the players. They are now being picked to do the business at first-team level and I’m sure, with the guidance of the manager, they can do it.”
The philosophy preached by Murray and other youth coaches at Hearts mirrors that of the SFA. Their performance director Mark Wotte and youth coaches Billy Stark and Ricky Sbragia are keen to nurture technical development with fast-flowing and skilful play. Movement on and off the ball is key to progress and it’s an approach Murray wholeheartedly endorses.
“I speak to Billy Stark and Ricky Sbragia and they are very complimentary towards the Hearts players. Ricky has taken in a number of our youth games and been very impressed, not just with the individual players but the style of play on show as well. If they are trying to build a style of play with the Scotland national teams which we are trying to produce at youth level, then it makes it easier.
“We’ve worked extremely hard on the youths in terms of the way they play the game. I think Mark Wotte has this philosophy of trying to get the ball down and pass it whilst rotating positions and moving. These players have been brought up with that under myself for the last few years. I’m delighted they’re getting the recognition they deserve.
“It’s testament to the work that’s been done with these players over the years by all our coaches, and to John Murray for signing them in the first place. Someone like Callum Tapping mustn’t have been far away from that Scotland Under-21 squad, plus you’ve got Billy King and Callum Paterson too.
“This has been three or four years in the making, building up to getting a number of players into Scotland squads. To get so many in the Under-21s at once is very pleasing. Having said that, the Scotland-England game is sandwiched between two really important games for our first team [against Hibs and Partick Thistle] so we’re obviously hoping all our players come back fit and healthy.”
Defender McKay and goalkeeper Hamilton are with the Under-21s squad for the first time. “Jack has done extremely well and a lot of credit has to go to Alan Combe, our goalkeeping coach, for that. Since Alan’s come in he’s worked extremely hard with Jack and you can see the progress the boy is making.
“Brad McKay has all the attributes to be a top defender – he’s quick, aggressive and can use the ball well. He maybe lacks experience a bit but he’s going to gain that at first-team level now. This is a great period for Hearts getting players into the Scotland squads. Every club has a belief in their players but when the national coaches select them that belief grows. It does the players’ confidence no harm, either.”