Jack Hamilton has only been Hearts’ established No.1 goalkeeper since the summer but, if anyone is qualified to assess his performance thus far and potential longevity in the position, it’s Henry Smith.
With 476 appearances over 15 years at Tynecastle, Smith’s stats in maroon are some way off for Hamilton, and probably unlikely to be matched should he continue progressing and eventually move on. Since being pitched in to an Edinburgh derby for his debut just over two years ago, Hamilton has so far made only 18 appearances under Robbie Neilson.
His emergence may be surprising given the accepted wisdom in the summer was that he would be sent out on loan once more before returning to stake a claim. Whether by accident or design, that wasn’t the case – and rightly so, according to Smith.
“When it came out in the papers in the close season that he was going out on loan, I thought it was the wrong choice,” said the 60-year-old. “I saw him at the back end of last year when he played a few games and I felt he was ready to step up. You don’t know how he’s going to react until he plays there, like we saw with Craig Gordon when he first started – look how he turned out.
“Jack’s come in as a roundabout choice. I don’t know if the [Neil] Alexander affair promoted Jack to No.1 by default but he’s done extremely well. At 22, he’s still only a baby as a goalkeeper but I always thought ‘yep, he’ll be No.1 one day’. He’s started the season in good form but now it’s all about Jack’s consistency. If he keeps that going, he’ll keep the spot.
“He’s a good shot-stopper. He commands his box, but there’s sometimes a weakness in when to come and when not to.
“Goalkeepers have a split second to make their mind up, and if they’re wrong, they’re punished. He’s got good communication skills, and his kicking is brilliant. He kicks it miles, but it’s not just that, he makes his own team favourites to win the ball. He can dink it in to [Conor] Sammon or Tony Watt or fire it out wide to Jamie [Walker] and Sam [Nicholson].”
The aforementioned ‘Alexander affair’ – namely the player/goalkeeping coach’s release in the summer – caught out Smith and many Hearts fans. “I was surprised to see Neil go,” he admitted. “I don’t know what the story was in the background there. I don’t know if he wanted first-team football automatically. It’s a fresh start for everybody at the start of the season with Robbie saying he wanted another keeper and to send Jack on loan.
“Something’s gone wrong, though, and it ended with Neil going on his way. If it was that and he’s got to fight for his place sitting on the bench – that’s what he’s doing at Aberdeen. If it’s the wrong choice, who knows. The future will tell.”
Hamilton was again called up to the full Scotland squad for the weekend World Cup qualifier in Malta. Smith, who was at the 5-1 victory, believes Hamilton’s involvement will bring him on leaps and bounds.
“It’ll give him confidence,” he said. “He’s doing his job at Tynecastle and that gets him the recognition. He’s worked with [Scotland goalkeeping coach] Jim Stewart before, he’s worked with Craig Gordon before so he knows the story. You’ve got McGregor, who’s injury prone and they’re looking for an up-and-coming young keeper, and Jack’s got the right profile to be there. He’ll learn when he trains with these guys, being around them and he’ll ask questions.”
Smith himself won three caps for his country, and reiterated that consistency whilst playing in maroon was key during a golden era for Scottish goalkeepers.
“David Bowman’s dad came up to me and said ‘you’ll play for Scotland one day’,” he recalled. “It was water off a duck’s back, I assumed he was just being nice. Scotland didn’t really cross my mind. But I consistently played well and that got me recognition with the Scotland squad. There were two certain keepers in Mr [Andy] Goram and Mr Leighton, and those two didn’t make mistakes when they played for Scotland. I learned a lot by training with them and getting my personality over to them, showing what I could do. They basically couldn’t live with me in training. I was fit as a fiddle, really working my tail off, going in on a Sunday afternoon, where probably those two were out on the razz at night, which helped me a bit! Three caps I got because I worked my tail off, but I think I sat on the bench 27 times, and being involved in the squad was brilliant with the stars in those days.”
Hamilton looks to be continuing a long tradition of quality Hearts goalkeepers. “They all said it started with [Jim] Cruickshank,” said Smith. “Johnny Brough was here when I joined, who was Scotland U21 as well, then I came in and upped the levels with the way I played. Then Gilles [Rousset] came in who was top notch, as was Antti [Niemi], then of course Craig Gordon. All keepers who laid down the standards that the fans expected of the next keeper to come in. Not every keeper produced that and couldn’t handle the pressure.
“When you go in there – Jack’s done this straight away – get the fans on your side. That’s half the battle. After that you have confidence. You come out on the pitch and hear the fans shouting your name – the ‘Henry, Henry’ shout went right round the stadium.
“I was a ‘flair goalie’ as I called it. I used to go dancing across the 18-yard line. ‘If you hate the Hibees clap your hands’ would start and I’d go along the 18-yard line and clap my hands! It gets the fans excited and they appreciate you giving something back to what they’re giving you.”