The giant goalkeeping gloves of Jack Hamilton are out to grab another priceless opportunity. Scotland’s European Under-21 Championship campaign is all but over and preparations start now for the 2017 qualifying series.
Hamilton is in the squad and determined to seize his moment.
The 20-year-old goalkeeper enjoyed some unexpected game time in the Hearts first team recently following injuries to his superiors, Neil Alexander and Scott Gallacher. That chance was literally grasped with both hands and now a similar window of opportunity exists at international level.
Scotland’s established under-21 keeper, Tottenham’s Jordan Archer, will be overage next year when qualification starts for the 2017 European Championship. Hamilton and Reading’s Jonathan Henly are both prospective heirs to the throne and are in the squad for this week’s final two qualifiers – away to Slovakia tomorrow and then to Luxembourg on Monday.
Those are effectively warm-up matches for the next campaign. They are meaningless in terms of competition, but to Hamilton they could well be crucial to his international aspirations.
“I didn’t expect this at all,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I’m one of the youngest in the squad and it’s a pretty young squad generally. A lot of us can play in the next campaign, which is just round the corner. Hopefully, if I don’t play in this campaign, I’ll be looking to impress in training and get involved in the next one.
“You always want to play but you just need to wait for that chance. As long as you’re doing well in training, then it will come.
“Playing the last three games for Hearts gets me out there and it’s helped me get into this squad. I’ve played for Scotland at under-19 level, but there is a new campaign coming up now so, hopefully, I’ll get the nod for that.
“It gives you a bit of confidence, knowing you’re getting a chance and then getting called into Scotland squads. It gives you more experience. You’re involved with other players and there are some big names in this under-21 group as well.”
Hamilton knows he is in good company. There is no-one more eminent, though, than squad’s goalkeeping coach. “It’s weird when you think about it but getting called into one of these squads is a bonus,” continued Hamilton. “It makes you a better player.
“Training with the likes of Jim Leighton is brilliant. He was a top goalkeeper in his day and he’s a top coach as well. He’s been there and he’s done everything. He’s won big trophies and he knows the game inside out. He will happily give you advice and it’s great to have that to call on.
“There is Jordan Archer here and Jonathan Henly, who is my age. You’re learning from everybody.
“Jordan is at Tottenham – although he’s on loan at Northampton just now – so he’s been training with Hugo Lloris, Michel Vorm and Brad Friedel. He’s played at this level for the last two years and I can pick up things and learn things from him. Then you’ve got Jim Leighton as well. You can learn massive amounts from him.”
There is nothing like first-hand experience to help a footballer develop, however. Hamilton has been fortunate in that area this season. After three matches on loan at Stenhousemuir, he was recalled by Hearts to deputise for Alexander and Gallacher.
He played in the Edinburgh derby win over Hibs, a 4-0 romp at Raith and in last weekend’s 4-1 victory over Falkirk. “It’s a massive learning curve. It’s just getting that experience of playing in front of the fans in games that mean a lot,” he explained. “These have been must-win matches and the atmosphere helps you along. I’m learning all the time, although you can’t get too ahead of yourself.
“Stenny would have been brilliant because I could’ve got 20-odd games under my belt there up until Christmas. Coming back to Hearts, you aren’t going to get any better than playing in an Edinburgh derby and the other games I’ve played. It’s been a great couple of weeks.”
The policy of Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson is to give young players opportunities in the team and help them develop. This week’s Scotland Under-21 squad contains four Riccarton proteges – Hamilton, Jordan McGhee, Sam Nicholson and Billy King. “A lot of the Hearts team is really young, but most of them have played 20 or 30 games, or more in some cases,” said Hamilton. “They’re all experienced now and when the team is doing well you can’t really change it. Boys like Sam, Billy, Kev McHattie, Jordan McGhee, they’re all playing very well. It’s a confidence boost for them knowing that, if they impress, they keep their place.”
Whether Hamilton can hold on to his position in goal depends on the fitness of Alexander following a cheekbone injury.
“Neil is back training so whether I can keep my place or not, I’ll need to wait and see. I knew the other keepers would be coming back. I’ve just tried to take each day as it comes and tried to impress the gaffer. I wanted to show I can play there if I’m called upon again.”