Hopes high as eight of Hearts prepare to graduate

Hearts academy graduates, from left, Euan Henderson, Anthony McDonald, Connor Smith, Dean Ritchie, Christopher Hamilton and Jay Sandison. Harry Cochrane and Marc Leonard were absent from the photo shoot. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Hearts academy graduates, from left, Euan Henderson, Anthony McDonald, Connor Smith, Dean Ritchie, Christopher Hamilton and Jay Sandison. Harry Cochrane and Marc Leonard were absent from the photo shoot. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Eight Hearts youth academy players will graduate to full-time professional contracts this summer – the biggest single intake in club history.

The Evening News gained exclusive access to the signing session when the players in question – all currently playing for Hearts Under-17s – put pen to paper.

They will leave school in June and immediately begin full-time training as part of the Riccarton under-20 squad under coaches Jon Daly, Andy Kirk and Liam Fox.

Hearts have high hopes for all eight teenagers and believe they have the potential to progress to first-team level over the next three to four years.

Signing contracts are Euan Henderson (striker), Dean Ritchie (holding midfielder), Jay Sandison (full-back), Anthony McDonald (attacking midfielder), Chris Hamilton (centre-back/right-back), and Connor Smith (attacking midfielder).

Central midfielder Harry Cochrane and striker/midfielder Marc Leonard will also sign deals soon.

Roger Arnott, manager of the Riccarton youth academy, welcomed the historic moment as visible evidence of Hearts’ commitment to developing their own players.

“We’re very clear on where we’re trying to get to,” he said. “We’ve had to bring players in to fill gaps before so we’ve only taken two or three players on professional deals from the academy before this. By signing these eight players, we might bring in one from outside. That’s it.

“We think we’ll have another six or seven coming through next year, and after that Craig Levein [director of football] is encouraged by what he sees going down through the age groups. The plan is to have our home-grown academy players playing in our development team at under-20 level.

“That’s the route we’re trying to get to. The more good players we have in there, the better their chances of making it through to the first team. We’ve had to bring in players from abroad recently at first-team level but the manager will always look to the development team first to see who can play in the first team. That takes time.

“It will be two or three years, it might be four, before this group of players are ready to play in the first team. What this says to the fans is that the club is in a good place. We’re working very hard with young players.

“Some of these kids were here previously, some have come in since the club came out of administration in 2014. We’re trying to create a pathway where we don’t have lots of players, but the ones we do have get challenged and play in older age groups.”