Jordan McGhee has big ambitions, clear belief in his ability and makes no secret of the fact he is desperate to start playing regularly at centre-back for Hearts.
He is basically a boy in a hurry, eager to start delivering on the promise that prompted Gary Locke to pitch him in for a debut aged just 16.
The problem for the 19-year-old is that his club possesses three more physically developed central defenders than him – Igor Rossi, Alim Ozturk and Blazej Augustyn – while McGhee is also a handy operator in other positions, namely right-back. From a manager’s perspective, it has been deemed a safer bet to pitch him in sporadically at full-back rather than centre-back thus far.
Robbie Neilson rates McGhee highly as a a central defender, as do others, with Ipswich Town having had offers rejected for him in the summer transfer window, but Hearts’ head coach believes it will only become clear in the next couple of years whether that is the best position for him to truly flourish long-term.
“We have big hopes for Jordan and I believe he can go and play down in England,” said Neilson. “It’s just a question of what position he plays when he goes there. If he is going to be a centre-half in England, he will need to grow an inch or two. He’s good enough to be a top-class right back, he’s very good defensively, he’s good on the ball. But I think he’s a better centre-half at the moment. It all depends on how he develops over the next year or two.
“He’s still growing, you can see already that he’s filling out, so he’s definitely got a chance. You saw him last week [against Dundee United], he came in at right back then switched over to left-back. He’s comfortable on the ball. He could play centre-half at 6ft 1in, but he’s not going to get a move down to a big team in England and play in that position, and that’s what he wants to do.”
Neilson played with Leicester City and Brentford after leaving Hearts in 2009 and got an insight into the level of physicality required even to operate in England’s second tier.
“Just look at every centre-half in England – you stand in the tunnel next to guys who are huge,” he said. “That’s just the nature of football now. I was predominantly a right-back at Hearts but I’d played centre-half a few times. I went down to England and I couldn’t play centre-half down there. They put a 6ft 3in, 6ft 4in striker up against you and you’ve got no chance. No matter how good a player you are, if they put an aerial ball in, you can’t compete against them unless you’ve got the height. You talk about technical players but you need them to have physicality as well. You look at all the top teams in the world, yes, they’ve got guys who are 5ft 8in, but they’re built like tanks. We’re trying to produce players that are physically strong but are also good footballers.”
Neilson explained the difficulties for a manager of trying to introduce a young defender like McGhee into the first team.
“When you put a young player in up front, they make a mistake and it usually doesn’t lead to a goal,” he said. “If they’re in defence, it can lead to a goal – and that can be difficult to cope with.
“You need to pick and choose when you put them in, have a look at the opposition, how the team are playing. It’s the same with a goalkeeper. A goalie makes one mistake and it can crush him for a few months. The club is all about progressing young players – but at the right time.”
McGhee is eager to play in his fourth match in the space of a fortnight at home to Ross County today. He followed up back-to-back outings for Scotland Under-21s, against France and Iceland, by making his first league start of the season in Hearts’ 1-0 win at Dundee United. Right-back Callum Paterson is free of suspension, but McGhee could feature at left-back depending on the fitness of Juwon Oshaniwa, who has been nursing a minor hamstring problem this week.
“To play two games for Scotland and then come back and play my first 90 minutes for Hearts has given me a real lift,” he said. “I thought I did really well last weekend and we got another clean sheet so it was great for my confidence.”
McGhee admits being on the sidelines for much of the season has been mentally testing. “It is difficult,” he said. “You need to have belief in yourself and keep training as hard as you can. I’ve asked the manager a few times what I can do to get in the team. He’s told me I need to be patient. He knows I’m good enough to play and I know I’m good enough, but I just need to wait until my time comes.”