MERELY hours after heading Hearts’ winning goal against Aberdeen, Jordan McGhee was back in the daily grind of a youth academy footballer. The 17-year-old arrived at Riccarton on Sunday morning still high on adrenalin after events at Tynecastle the previous day. However, he was soon crashing down to earth cleaning the boots of team-mates who played alongside him in the 2-1 win.
McGhee’s daily chores include mopping floors and lugging training kit around Riccarton. However, he must also participate in sessions with Gary Locke’s threadbare first-team squad. His endeavour and industry is unquestionable, and on Saturday he gained the rewards of a first senior goal with only minutes left as Hearts recovered yet more ground following their 15-point deduction for entering administration.
“I clean boots, take the first-team training gear out, bring it back in again after training, and I mop the floors and things like that,” McGhee explained to the Evening News. “I was back in on Sunday morning. I had to clean the boots from Saturday’s game.”
He now seems caught in something of a no-man’s land. Is he a man, or is he a kid? He certainly did an adult’s job on Saturday after replacing the concussed Brad McKay and has all the attributes of a player who will mature into a top-class defender. Yet, despite his hulking frame and exceptional ability, facially McGhee looks like he should still be eating Starburst and playing on his BMX.
He will be in the Hearts squad for this evening’s League Cup second-round tie with Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park. Following the weekend heroics, he is again expected to start amongst the substitutes. “Hopefully I’ll be part of the squad. I’ll prepare mentally just in case something like that [McKay’s injury] happens again. If it does, I’ll go on and try to take my chance again,” he said.
“I was absolutely buzzing on Saturday. I was delighted for the lads as well because they worked so hard to get that result and it was brilliant to get on and get the winner. Everyone was pleased for me and it was such a good feeling.
“Once I saw Brad was hurt I was told to go and warm up. Callum Tapping could have gone on and played in that position, but it was a brilliant feeling getting to go on, and even better when I scored the goal. My mum and dad were there watching so it was nice to have them there. My last goal was for Scotland Under-20s against Mexico in Holland. That was a header as well, exactly the same at the back post. It’s not something I practice, it’s just come naturally over the years to get in there.”
His tender years only become obvious up close, for on the park McGhee is a fair-sized opponent. Like many of his academy colleagues he has had to mature quickly after Hearts entered administration in June. It is a challenge he relishes. “I have had to grow up but that’s to be expected because, if you want to make it as a footballer, you need to grow up quickly and adapt to different circumstances,” he said. “The manager hasn’t said I’ll be needed for any specific time. I just need to hope I get a chance.
“It’s been brilliant getting opportunities like this. It’s also been hard as well. Pre-season was hard but the feeling has been different class to be involved with the first team and getting games, even in pre-season friendlies. I played against Queen of the South and I came on as a substitute in some games as well so it’s been really good experience.
“You just need to try and relax and do what you would normally do when you play. For me, that’s doing what I’ve been doing for Hearts’ Under-20s and taking that into the first-team game. It’s a lot more physical with the players involved at that level but I just need to relax and do my best.”
He won’t regard himself as a first-team player yet, though. Not while he has those daily tasks to keep him grounded.
“My target is simply to try and keep performing well for the under-20s and then just see what I can do from there,” he says. “If I get my chance, then I want to take it. That’s what I tried to do on Saturday.
“I don’t think of myself as a first-team player, I’m still just an under-20 player. I’d be an under-20 player if there were more players here so that’s what I am. However, it’s been a great experience getting called up by the first team and sitting on the bench waiting to come on. It’s obviously nerve-wracking with the fans as well because the atmosphere on Saturday was tremendous. It’s hard to adjust to it, but the fans are like a 12th man at times and they get the boys going.”
Tonight, the focus switches to a different competition but Locke has no choice other than to call upon the same youngsters. Hearts have not lifted the League Cup since 1962 and would dearly love to recapture the trophy this season. However, their priority must be staying in the Premierhship.
“I wish I was in a position to rest a few players, but I don’t think I’m in a position to rest anyone,” said Locke, who confirmed McKay has recovered from his head knock and is available. “Facts are facts, we don’t have a big enough squad to rest anyone. This is a competition we are looking to try and get a good run in.
“We will go with the squad that is going to get us through the season. In an ideal world I would love to rest players, but I’m just not going to have that option.”
Having taken seven points from their opening four league fixtures, Hearts head to Kirkcaldy in confident mood.
“Winning breeds confidence,” continued Locke. “I think you can see the players are happy with the way they’re playing at the moment.
“Tonight we are going to Raith expecting a difficult game. I’m up against an ex-team-mate [Grant Murray] who has his team well organised and has signed some good players. We know how hard it’s going to be, but it’s a game were are looking to win.”