HEARTS’ youth academy is expanding as the club opens five regional coaching centres across east/central Scotland.
Training hubs in Fife, East Lothian, Edinburgh and North Lanarkshire are already underway, with one in Forth Valley to follow. The project is being funded solely by the Hearts Youth Development Committee at a cost of £50,000 per year.
Youngsters aged seven and upwards are training with Hearts coaches at local facilities each week in Cowdenbeath, Dalkeith, Riccarton and Ravenscraig. A fifth regional centre in Stenhousemuir will open soon. All groups are brought together at Riccarton once a month, allowing kids from all regions to mix whilst the Hearts academy manager Roger Arnott and his staff identify personally with each player.
The scheme further demonstrates owner Ann Budge’s commitment to growing Hearts as a strong community club. HYDC’s funding is generated solely to help with youth development at Riccarton. In this instance, they are paying for coaches, equipment, kit and the rental of facilities in each of the above areas, thus avoiding placing added demands on finances at Tynecastle. The aim is to develop relationships with local youth football clubs, their coaches, parents and players and stretch the youth development net across the club’s catchment area.
“We’re obviously looking at whether there are any talented kids out there that we can develop a connection with, but it’s also about getting the Hearts name out there. It’s a really good venture and we couldn’t have done it without HYDC,” Arnott told the Evening News.
“They’ve been fundraising for years, long before I got here, and have always come to the rescue of the academy with a little input here and there. They wanted to do something really meaningful, something they could attach themselves to, something all their members and the people who donate to them could really see the benefits of. This is one big project funded by them. This is something I was keen to do. It allows us to compete with other clubs in the country in creating links with young players. HYDC bought into it and we’ve been able to deliver it.
“These development centres are in our catchment areas where there are a lot of Hearts fans. These allow us to create links with clubs, coaches and parents of kids at a young age in these areas. Not only are we running these weekly centres, but, at the end of each month, all the kids come to the academy for a mini football festival where they play and train together. That lets us see them in a different environment.
“It’s been really successful so far. We’re involving parents a lot and giving feedback, we’re giving clubs feedback as well to help them improve the players. Parents can see what we’re doing with the kids and it’s a great experience for them all.”
The project is by far the biggest HYDC have funded since they formed in 1991. The committee previously donated small amounts of cash to help Hearts youth teams with equipment and facilities. Now they have their own venture. Chairman Calum Robertson explained why they are happy to meet the yearly costs for regional centres.
“We said previously it was like we were the bank of Hearts,” he said. “They asked us to do this and that, a couple of hundred quid here, a thousand pounds there. We said we needed something tangible. We wanted to go the fans and tell them we had a project. Roger spoke to Craig Levein [director of football] and Ann Budge and said they were looking to do satellite coaching centres and did we fancy funding it.
“The costs are £50,000 every year, which we’re committed to now. It ties in with what Ann is trying to do, working with local communities. We’re trying to work closely with juvenile clubs, whereas in the past there’s been a ‘them and us’ type of mentality. I believe, through the coaching, kids get little homework cards which they can go away and work on.
“Watching six and seven-year-olds running about playing football with a smile on their faces, that’s what HYDC is about for me. We still have our commitment to the academy. In fact, we’ve just committed to more money for sports science for all the age-group teams. We’re partly funding it so we’re working well with the club. We feel involved – we aren’t just doing bits and pieces. We can help with these things year on year, but only if the fans keep backing us.”
Long-term, Arnott wants more academy players graduating to first-team level to emulate Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson and Billy King. He is irked by the crazy notions persisting in Scotland that size matters more than anything else in young footballers. It is not an approach Hearts intend to follow.
“I’ve been strong on this. Size doesn’t matter at all,” he stressed. “If clubs are looking at the size of a player at nine, ten, 11 years old, then, for me, that’s wrong. They should be looking at how intelligent the player is. How good is he or can he be technically? How good is his awareness of the game? It’s what kids have upstairs that matters. When they go through their growth spurts at 13, 14, 15 and they hit puberty, then they come out the other side and you can see physically if they’ll be able to cope with the demands of the game.
“Size is important in certain positions – as a goalkeeper, as a centre-half, yes – but in other areas it’s not so vital. In Scottish football, we still look at size a lot of the time. I see that week in and week out watching clubs who have big, strong, physical boys. Their focus is on winning the game at that point in time but for our club that’s not the way forward.
“We’re all working so hard as a team to develop the academy. It’s important that the first place we look for players is the academy. You look at Jack Ross and the under-20 squad – can we find a player who can do that job for the first team? Can we give them that opportunity? Then it’s up to the player to step up. If you don’t have that, you sometimes have to look elsewhere.
“The modern game is so quick and the demands on the players are so big that they have to be technically good. Once we develop technical aspects in a player, then we develop their game knowledge and our principles of play. That’s how we want to create the well-rounded player. The challenge then is to make sure they’re intelligent enough, that their brain can cope with the demands of the game and full-time football.
“At the moment, we have four or five academy players in the first-team squad each week. The idea is to have more and get as many players through the system as we can. We need to make sure they’re prepared and that starts when they come in at seven and eight years old.
“It’s about how we work with them at that age to create good players who can cope with the demands of the game. If they go through the academy, they have to be able to cope with the demands of being a full-time professional. We want as many academy kids in the team as we can.”
• The HYDC Sportsman’s Breakfast is on Sunday, September 6, in Tynecastle’s Gorgie Suite. Tickets are £20, which includes a hot buffet cooked breakfast. Doors open at 11am and Tam Cowan is amongst the guest speakers. All cash raised will go directly to the Hearts youth academy. To book tickets for the event please email firstname.lastname@example.org