All Jack Hamilton craved was a chance.
In late March, the goalkeeper was ruing his lack of game time and wondering when he’d finally get an opportunity to start proving himself. At that point, it looked destined to come in the shape of a loan move to a lower-league side as the on-form Neil Alexander appeared in command of the gloves at Hearts.
Since the start of May, however, Hamilton’s fortunes have enjoyed an upturn beyond anything he could have anticipated. The 22-year-old prepares for tonight’s Betfred Cup last-16 tie away to St Johnstone as Hearts’ first-choice goalkeeper, having started each of their last eight competitive games, including three matches at the end of last term. Amid all this, he was called into the full Scotland squad for friendlies against France and Italy in May. By some distance, these are the headiest days of Hamilton’s fledgling career so far.
“The last few months have been great for me,” he told the Evening News. “I wouldn’t say I was frustrated before because that’s a strong word. I just wanted to play football but I knew Neil was doing really well. He was excellent for Hearts but, as a footballer, you don’t want to be sitting on the bench – you just want to play.
“It’s funny how quickly things can change in football, though. It was brilliant for the gaffer to show faith in me and stick me in as No.1. I was thrown straight into the competitive games in Europe and they’ve been brilliant for me because they were tough tests. I know I’m far from the finished article but I feel like I’m getting better every time I train and play a game. There’s going to be mountains of things that need changed and tweaked along the way, and that’s where the goalie coach comes in because he watches things back with me in the video analysis and shows what needs to be improved. So far it’s been great. I’m absolutely loving being the Hearts goalkeeper. I’m learning every day.”
Hamilton knows he is fortunate to have been handed such a high-responsibility role at a relatively tender age. However, having come through his most high-profile match so far, at home to champions Celtic on Sunday, he insists he is coping adequately with the level of pressure and expectation in acting as the last line of defence in a team boasting lofty aspirations.
“I just try to keep improving each day and doing the right things rather than let the pressure affect me,” said Hamilton. “I always get nerves in a match, but I don’t look at that as a negative thing. I think it’s a sign that you care. Every player, whatever age they are, will get nerves. As long as you control it, it’s a good thing. It gets easier the more experience you get. As a young Hearts goalkeeper, to be playing against Celtic in front of a full house at Tynecastle, you couldn’t ask for better. It was a hard game and mentally it’s hard, but that’s your job. It’s brilliant.”
Gordon Strachan is due to name his Scotland squad for the opening World Cup qualifier against Malta later this month. Having been in the last squad and since been confirmed as Hearts’ No.1, Hamilton is entitled to feel he might have an outside chance of inclusion.
“I’m not really thinking too much about the next Scotland squad,” he said. “It was fantastic for me to go away with them at the end of last season but I think I’m more likely to be in the 21s squad. I’d love to be in the full squad again. Everybody dreams of playing for their country, so hopefully I can do that one day. But, realistically, I’m looking to feature in the Under-21 squads for the rest of this [European Championship qualifying] campaign.”
Meanwhile, Conor Sammon insists it is time for Hearts’ to end their 54-year wait for success in the League Cup. The striker, who moved to Tynecastle this summer, was stunned to learn that his new club hadn’t collected the trophy for more than half a century. A victory against St Johnstone in Perth tonight would take Hearts into the last eight.
“I was told that earlier on and it really surprised me,” he said. “With the size of the club, and the quality Hearts have had over the last 30-40 years, that is incredible. If someone had put me on the spot and said ‘when do you think the last time Hearts won the League Cup was?’ I would have definitely guessed within the last ten or 15 years. That is something we can use as additional motivation, to be the group of players that lifts the trophy and changes a stat like that.”
Sammon was paired in attack with fellow summer signing Tony Watt for the first time on Sunday, and early signs are that the duo could work well together. “I think the style of player the two of us are we can really complement each other,” said Sammon. “Tony is a clever footballer who looks to drop into the hole and almost play in between midfield and attack.
“He has got a very good touch, he is skilful, he can score goals and he can create chances as well for me. It suits me as well because I want to play on the last man, I want to be one v one with defenders. If the two of us can get more games in then we can really gel together. We have great competition in the striking area with Robbie Muirhead as well and Bjorn Johnsen coming in.”