Hearts are not only committed to winning the league this season, but also to developing youngsters in the process.
Finishing first in the Scottish Championship is the stated aim at Tynecastle. However, promising youth players must also sample first-team football. That is the mantra of head coach Robbie Neilson and his coaching staff.
It is a delicate balancing act, particularly with a squad in newly-assembled in the wake of Hearts’ exit from administration in May. So far, both targets are being achieved. The Edinburgh club sit unbeaten and nine points clear of Rangers at the top of the table with several young protégés emerging from the Riccarton youth academy.
Saturday’s 4-1 home win over Queen of the South carried two sub-plots to that effect. Striker Robbie Buchanan, aged 18, got his first start at senior level and 17-year-old Nathan Flanagan made his debut as a substitute just six months after joining Hearts on a full-time contract. Along with youth-team colleagues like Liam Smith, Alistair Roy, Angus Beith and Liam Henderson, they represent the next generation.
Neilson is determined both projects can run concurrently; that the plan designed to win the league can work in tandem with the club’s youth development programme. On the first day of pre-season back in June, he brought all professional players together for training and has continued this policy to monitor the progress of everyone. When Hearts are comfortably ahead in matches such as Saturday, he will take the opportunity to blood a youngster. Occasionally, one will be thrown in from the start.
“It’s a big balancing act. We want to win the league, but we need to be developing players as well,” said Neilson. “One of the good things about the club now is that all the players train together. We have Nathan Flanagan and Sean McKirdy, who are 16 and 17, training every day with the likes of Danny Wilson and [Soufian] El Hassnaoui. They’re learning all the time.
“At the majority of clubs, the youth team are away up behind a hill miles away training separately. This way, we can judge them every day and see how they’re doing. They are good players and they’re progressing well. It’s great we can get them involved with the first team. Nathan came on for his debut, Robbie got his first league start, and we got a result as well. These guys can help us as part of the campaign. Everyone is in it together here.
“We’ve trained together since the summer. That was the plan all the way along. We have myself, Stevie Crawford [assistant coach], Jack Ross [under-20 coach] and John Hill [sports scientist], who all work together and work with different groups of players. We look at different aspects of the game and work on it with everyone. If we want to develop players, they should be training at as a high a level as they can every day. There are times when we focus solely on the first team but 90 per cent of the time the players all train together.”
Neilson added that he was impressed by the performances of both Buchanan and Flanagan against Queen of the South. “I thought Buchanan did well and I was really pleased with him in that 4-4-2 formation,” he continued. “He held the ball up well, but I decided to change the system and he moved over to the left. He can play anywhere. He plays up front, left midfield, left-back, right-back, he’s just comfortable anywhere because he’s a good player. He didn’t look like a guy who was making his debut on Saturday. He looked like someone who has played 20 or 30 games in the first team. That’s pleasing.
“Nathan only started full-time in the summer. He’s been working hard and it took him a wee bit of time to settle in. He’s managed to do that and he’s come on for his debut. He got a touch of the ball as well and it’s great to see boys like that developing. That’s the hurdle of his first-team debut over with. Next time he comes on, he’ll have that experience.”
Senior players and youths also mix in the Riccarton dressing rooms each day. One man who doesn’t frequent that area is Neilson. He believes players need a private place to relax away from the attention of coaches and tends to stay upstairs most of the time. In his absence, the Hearts captain Danny Wilson and experienced full-back Adam Eckersley take charge.
“The players are in the dressing room, that’s their environment, I don’t really go in it,” explained Neilson. “I just let them do what they want in there. Adam Eckersley and Danny are the ones who police it. I think it’s important the players have their own area where they can relax and they don’t have me in their ear talking to them all the time.
“The only time I’ll go in the dressing room is if we’re doing video analysis. I’ll go in and do that. A lot of clubs have that policy to be fair. They make sure the players have their own area and they can do what they want in there. A few players take responsibility for looking after it.
“It’s their area and they don’t want me cutting about all the time. You find as a coach that, when you walk in somewhere, the talking sometimes stops because they’re talking about this or that.
“We’ve got a good group with a really good spirit and some good characters.”