A crucial point in Jason Holt’s promising career is approaching. Young, gifted, talented and enthusiastic are all adjectives which apply to the Hearts midfielder.
Unfortunately, marginalised is the most apt description for him at the moment. Hearts’ impressive league start has not come without its victims and Holt is probably the most obvious.
The 21-year-old has started only three league games so far this season and four in total. By this time last year, he had managed 12 starts. Hearts as a club are in infinitely better health now than 12 months ago but the same cannot be said for Holt. He must decide the next step in his development with his contract due to expire in just seven months’ time.
Holt graduated from the Riccarton youth academy in 2011 as Scotland’s Under-19 Player of the Year. He was saddled with that vastly-overused title “The Next Big Thing” and was a regular in Billy Stark’s Scotland Under-21 squad. An influx of experienced heads at Tynecastle over the summer brought much-needed guidance and stability for many young players there, although Holt has suffered because of it.
Prince Buaben, aged 26, and 29-year-old Morgaro Gomis are in possession of the central midfielder berths Holt favours. They hold years of senior experience in Scotland and England and don’t look like relinquishing their places any time soon. When they do, the Spanish midfielder Miguel Pallardo is probably next in line. Holt finds himself mostly on the substitutes’ bench and frequently unused during matches.
At a stage in his career when progression is vital, he is in danger of stagnating. Hearts’ results more than justify the team selections made by head coach Robbie Neilson, thus Holt may have a choice to make if his circumstances haven’t altered by the time the transfer window opens on January 1. He is not the type to become impatient and start issuing ultimatums to managers but he knows the value of regular game time having experienced it last season.
“I would suggest he needs to be playing at his age. Jason will know that and Robbie will know that as well,” says Darren Murray, the former Hearts youth coach who worked with Holt and many of the club’s protégés during his time at Riccarton. “The wee man’s got a good head on his shoulders and I think he’ll wait for his opportunity. Hopefully he can take it and stay in the team. All the younger players at Hearts are very much steeped in the traditions of the football club. Although the professional game is your livelihood and it pays your mortgage and all the rest of it, Jason loves playing for Hearts. He has done for a number of years but he’s at the age where he needs to play now.
“He needs to take stock of the situation. I’d suggest he works really hard up until January to try and force his way back into the team in some way. You never know what can happen. Someone might get an injury or a suspension could arise, then Jason goes back in and keeps his place. That’s how football works. Any chances he’s had this season, from what I’ve seen, he’s done very well.”
If he can’t force his way back in, other clubs are likely to move in. Nottingham Forest had derisory bids rejected for Holt last year and are unlikely to be the only team enticed by the prospect of signing the young midfielder on a pre-contract agreement.
“In my opinion, Jason is a quality player. I’m sure there will be other teams attracted to him,” continues Murray. “Knowing Jason, knowing Robbie and knowing the people at Hearts, I think they’ve got to work together and find a solution. I’m sure they will do that. Jason will want to play, Robbie will be aware of that and he’ll be talking to Jason every week. He’s that type of coach.
“I don’t see any problems there, I just see them coming to a solution. Whether that solution is Jason gets back in the team and keeps his place, or he has to go out on loan to get games, that’s for Robbie and Jason to sort out.”
Hearts have often employed a 4-4-2 system this season and been unable to accommodate Holt because of the Buaben/Gomis central midfield axis. Holt can play centrally or as a No.10 behind a striker. He can also be deployed out wide. “You always want to play your best players,” says Murray. “When you’ve got somebody like Jason Holt warming the bench, it’s a difficult situation. One of the unfortunate things for Jason is Hearts play with two central midfielders and then two strikers up top.
“If you have one striker and another player off him, then Jason has been that one off at times. The two midfield places seem stuck on right now so Jason will find it difficult to get back in there. The results have been very good and that’s what you base your team on – results. Any time Jason gets the opportunity to play, he has to do his best and I’m sure he will.
“Jason is very level-headed so he’ll deal with this quite easily. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very focused and he wants to play week in and week out. He’ll understand the situation. If the team is winning and you aren’t in the side, what can you knock the manager’s door with? You don’t really have a lot to argue about.
“I’ve seen Jason play out wide before. I know Billy King and Sam Nicholson have been doing exceptionally well but Jason can play off the flank. He can also play in the No 10 position, so he’s got one or two options for forcing his way back in. He’s certainly a talent.
“Hearts brought in a number of experienced players over the summer. The guys who came in are also good professionals and therefore some players are finding it difficult to get into the team. There was a very good group of young players at Hearts and I see many of them flourishing now alongside the more experienced lads. They are all good characters and that was really key to the recruitment in the summer. I thought Craig Levein (director of football) and Robbie handled that really well.
“It’s been to the detriment of some of some younger players but listen, now it’s a fight for them. Football is never easy. First-team football is hard. This is a fight for them to either get back into the Hearts team or get themselves somewhere that they can play regularly. At their age, they have to be playing.”
Midfielder Scott Robinson finds himself in a similar predicament to Holt, as does centre-back Brad McKay. Those two are even further down the pecking order and are struggling to claim a place on the substitutes’ bench.
“It’s no good for these players to play under-20 football because it’s not challenging enough for them,” explains Murray. “Again, it’s up to the players, Robbie and Craig to come to a solution. Hearts is being run properly now with Ann Budge at the helm so I think every decision made will be a good footballing decision, as opposed to the past when that hasn’t been the case.
“The players should have no worries. The worry they should have is getting into the team and trying to perform. If they can’t do that then they need to get out and get playing. Robbie will know that, Craig will know that and the players will know that. I’m sure the club will come to the right decision and that’s what’s going to happen in future.
“As much as it will be frustrating for them, they can rest assured that the football club is being run properly now and that’s the most important thing.”