KEVIN McHATTIE has had the best of both worlds this pre-season. After all, there are not many young players who have a seasoned internationalist on hand to act as a personal mentor while not providing a threat to his place in the team.
Buoyed by the knowledge that he will start the season as Hearts’ only specialist left-back, McHattie has enjoyed the opportunity to pick the brains of Gary Naysmith, the veteran former Hearts, Everton and Scotland left-back, who has been training at Riccarton and coming on as a trialist in friendlies to give the 20-year-old a breather.
“It helps greatly having someone like Gary around,” said McHattie who flew to Belfast this morning along with the rest of the Hearts squad ahead of their latest pre-season assignment against Crusaders tonight. “He came through and made his name as a youngster at Hearts and has gone on to have a great career down south, so he’s someone I’ve got to learn from. He’s a nice guy and he’s been speaking to me after all the games, telling me what I’ve done right and what I’ve done wrong, which is a massive help. It’s great for me to see him training and see how he goes about his business.”
Level-headed and grounded, McHattie is evidently desperate to make the most of his opportunity in the Hearts first team. He knows he is in a privileged position and is intent on doing everything he can to try to fulfil his potential. This includes watching closely how former Hearts defenders who have gone on to become established Scotland internationalists go about their work. In addition to Naysmith, who is still training with his old club, Christophe Berra, the former Hearts captain, used the facilities briefly at Riccarton before sealing his move to Ipswich Town last week.
“The professionalism from guys like Gary and Christophe is great,” observed McHattie. “Christophe was out on the training park 15 minutes early and things like that. It’s spot on. It’s great to have guys like that about the place because you take note of the way they conduct themselves. Managers look at the little things off the park as well as what goes on on the park so you need to apply yourself properly all the time.
“Attitude is a massive factor in making it in football these days. Managers want players who work hard and who they trust, so hopefully I’ve got that all. I try and make a conscious effort to do the right things all the time.”
Despite their ongoing off-field issues, Hearts arrive in Belfast with something of a spring in their step. Ordinarily, pre-season results would not count for much. However, given what Hearts have been through over the past few months, a three-game unbeaten run, with seven goals scored and only one conceded, has given Gary Locke’s young, threadbare squad a welcome morale boost ahead of their three-day jaunt to Northern Ireland, which will also take in a clash with a Liverpool XI on Saturday.
“This is my first proper trip away with the team, so I’m looking forward to it,” said McHattie. “It’ll be nice to get away for a wee change of scenery and it’ll be good for team morale for us all to go away together. Pre-season’s been great so far. The gaffer’s got us all buzzing.
“Pre-season results maybe don’t mean much but we’re certainly taking confidence from our results. We were all buzzing after the win at Raith in particular. After scoring five goals in any game, you’re going to be full of confidence. At Queen of the South on Saturday, we did well not to concede because they played really well.”
A year ago McHattie was gearing up for his breakthrough into the first team, although back then he was only being prepared to keep the left-back berth warm for Danny Grainger, who was suspended for the start of last season.
This time, with the Englishman having departed, McHattie has the added responsibility of knowing he is Hearts’ only serious option for the No. 3 jersey.
I don’t feel any pressure being the only left-back,” he says. “I feel I’ve grown into it now. In the first five or six games I played, I was maybe a bit nervous for the first ten minutes or so, but I’m used to playing now. I think all the younger boys who have had a taste of it are the same. We feel we’ve grown into it and I’m sure we’ll be a lot more confident this season.”
Confidence is not something these Hearts youngsters are short of at present. McHattie, for one, is adamant his side can wipe out their 15-point deficit and stay in the SPFL Premiership. Asked if they can pull it off, he replies: “Definitely. With the talent we’ve got, we definitely have a good chance. If we got offered tenth place right now, we’d take it, though. The first target has got to be to get ourselves back to zero as quickly as possible and then take it from there.”
While some feel Hearts’ lack of experience will count against them this season, McHattie believes their youthful exuberance could work in their favour as they bid to play teams off the park. “Darren Murray [Hearts’ player development manager] has brought us up to be good players on and off the ball,” he explains. “Because we’re all so young, I think we’ll have a bit of an advantage over other teams when it comes to speed and agility. Most of us have played together for about four years and we’ve been brought up to pass and move quickly. If it all clicks for us in the first team, teams could find it hard to contain us. We’ve got good players going forward and we’ve also got a steady backline and a solid keeper. We might not have an obvious 20-goal-a-season striker but we’ve got a lot of good finishers at the club, so I think the goals will come from throughout the team.