Collecting seven points from the opening five league games left many surprised by the impact of Hearts’ youth academy graduates.
They were supposed to struggle, overburdened by the 15-point penalty imposed on their club for entering administration. If anything, they have thrived on the opportunity.
Beyond their domestic feats, many have gained international recognition. Last week’s Scotland Under-21 squad contained six Hearts players, with other younger academy pupils involved in other national age-group teams. It is an indication that, while Hearts’ financial future remains questionable, the most stable part of the entire club is its youth programme.
There is nothing revealing in that for those who have monitored these players’ development. The likes of Jamie Walker, Jason Holt, Callum Paterson, Brad McKay, Kevin McHattie and a host of others have been plunged into first-team football as a result of Hearts’ financial collapse. That they are holding their own in the cut-throat Scottish Premiership is not news to the club’s coaching staff.
“I’ve always known these boys had ability. I didn’t have any qualms about putting them into the team,” explained manager Gary Locke, pictured, who prepares his young proteges for the visit of league champions Celtic this Saturday after a two-week international break. “At the moment, we’re putting players in and people don’t know much about them. That’s definitely helped us.
“When you get seven or eight games into the season and the boys have been watched – as we do with other teams, we go and scout them – then that’s when they’ve got to step up a level again. Once people know what you’re all about, what your strengths and weaknesses are, then you have to raise your game to another level.
“I’ve been delighted with the way they’ve started the season but there’s a long way to go. It’s important they keep their feet on the ground because we haven’t achieved anything. We’ve got off to a half-decent start and that’s all it is.”
The driving forces behind the Hearts youth academy harbour a quiet sense of satisfaction. Director of football John Murray and his namesake Darren, Riccarton’s player development manager, identified and nurtured the most recent crop believing they could progress to senior level.
Behind them are the Hearts Youth Development Committee (HYDC), who raise thousands of pounds every year to help run the academy. They watch players’ progress closely and, like the coaches at the coal face, are not surprised at how the most recent graduates are faring. “A lot has been said about the desire and togetherness of the Hearts squad,” said Calum Robertson, chairman of the HYDC. “Whilst The Hearts Youth Development Committee are as delighted as all Hearts fans, they have always believed that the consistency in the calibre of players coming through the academy system would hold the club in good stead.
“The academy staff’s skill, ability and eye for a good player has been consistent for many years and in particular the part played by John Murray and Darren Murray should never be underestimated. Whilst John and Darren deservedly get a lot of plaudits, there is a tremendous team behind them including coaches, scouts and sports science staff who are working really hard behind the scenes and deserve huge credit for the unsung work they put in. Everyone is aware that due to circumstances outwith the control of the current staff, the manager is having to pick a team for every game from probably the youngest squad in living history. The start to the season has been positive but it is only the start. HYDC are convinced that the academy will continue to flourish and produce players that can play at first-team level.
“Special mention should be given to the number of academy players who have recently received international recognition at under-17, under-19 and under-21 level. This is another area that reflects well on the hard work at the academy by staff and players alike.
“Despite recent times being troubled for the club, HYDC find it exciting to watch the development of players through the ages and eventually playing for the first team. There may be some sticky times throughout the season but, with the spirit we have shown so far, we are positive that the future is bright for HMFC.”