JACK HAMILTON admits he needs more first-team football to take his goalkeeping to the next level.
Hearts’ second-choice keeper is eager to play regularly after a standout display for Scotland Under-21s against France in Angers on Thursday.
Some defiant and at times breathtaking saves by the 22-year-old left burgeoning French superstars like Adrien Rabiot and Ousmane Dembele frustrated. Although Sebastien Haller’s two second-half goals eventually broke Hamilton’s resistance, his display proved he is ready to step up and play regularly at senior club level.
The goalkeeper, however, acknowledged that he remains behind Neil Alexander in the queue at Tynecastle. His own development depends on the situation changing. He can’t continue playing under-20 football and sitting in reserve. A loan move this summer remains a possibility, although Hamilton intends to think long and hard about his options.
“We’ve got Neil Alexander and he’s been really good for us. It’s just about watching him and learning as a young goalkeeper but it’s hard to break through,” said Hamilton. “It’s hard to wait for a chance. You have to watch people in front of you and try to learn from them and try to get their position.
“Every day in training, you’re always focused and you prepare every week like you’re going to play on the Saturday, regardless of whether you’re playing or on the bench. You never know what’s going to happen. Under-20 football is alright, nothing beats playing a game of football and that match situation. I think that’s where you learn most. I need football to improve, I need game time to take myself to the next level.”
Alexander is expected to sign a new contract before the season ends to continue his dual role as player/goalkeeping coach with Hearts. That may lead to further frustration for Hamilton. He admitted he craves the big-game atmosphere like that in the Stade Jean Bouin in Thursday’s European Under-21 Championship qualifier.
Facing Paris Saint Germain’s Rabiot and teenage Rennes striker Dembele – linked with a £40million move to Bayern Munich – leaves Hamilton wanting more. “That’s the first time I’ve really had game time for a while in front of a big crowd and a good atmosphere in a game that means something instead of under-20 football. It was the first time I’d really played in that kind of game since the last Scotland Under-21 campaign. It’s been hard. I just want to learn from that. I need game time to try and improve.”
His performance merely enhanced his reputation within the Scottish Football Association. Ricky Sbragia’s Under-21 squad returned from France yesterday afternoon and are now preparing for a must-win qualifier against Northern Ireland on Tuesday. “We have another big game on Tuesday night so hopefully I’m selected again and I can kick on from there,” said Hamilton.
“It’s disappointing losing to France. You’re never happy going away with a defeat. It’s a hard one to take but it’s a learning curve. Look at the players they’ve got. That’s the level you want to get to. You just need to take it on the chin and try to learn from it.
“In the first half, it seemed it might be my night. Things were coming off for me but in the second half they just battered us. Once they got the first goal, that was them. They had their tails up a bit and they got the second soon after that.”
The second goal irked Hamilton especially. He failed to hold Rabiot’s 25-yard shot, only for Haller to convert the rebound with the heel of his trailing foot. “I never like losing a goal. The way it happened, it came off me and they’ve scored from the rebound. That’s another learning experience for me. I need to go away and watch that and learn from it.
“It’s great experience playing against these players. You can’t really keep your head high after a defeat but that’s the level we want to get to. You look at them and go back to training to work towards that.”
Sbragia echoed Hamilton’s sentiments about the potential within the France Under-21 side. “France are the best side I’ve seen,” he said. “They made four changes from the side which beat us earlier this season but it’s just the quality of their squad. The talent they have and the level of club where a lot of them are playing is so high.
“You look at the kid who is playing at Paris Saint Germain on television [Rabiot], but it’s only when you watch him live that you realise he’s on another planet. That’s what guys like that need to achieve if they want to get to that level.
“There’s quality throughout, their centre-halves are excellent, the big boy in attack Sebastien Haller is a handful. The one thing you see which stands out more than anything is their power and pace.
“Those qualities combined with technical ability shows you what the French have got. We did well against them at set-pieces even though we knew we were disadvantaged in height, so credit to our players for that as they kept at it.
“When the first goal went in we thought about changing it, but it was difficult with the personnel we had as France were no longer chasing things. They had been getting frustrated the longer the game went on. We thought we could maybe steal it but unfortunately for us it didn’t happen.”