JACK HAMILTON relishes the unyielding pressure which is now a daily part of his life.
At 22, he shoulders a fair burden with his club, Hearts, and country, Scotland, but he thrives on the very intensity of it all.
Four months ago, Hamilton was Hearts’ second-choice goalkeeper and a regular in the Scotland Under-21 side. His career transcended to an entirely new platform during the summer when he was promoted to the senior international squad and became No.1 at Tynecastle.
Hamilton is indisputably the most promisng young keeper in the country right now. National coach Gordon Strachan feels introducing him to the full squad early will help with the grooming process.
At club level, Hearts management installed him as first- choice in recognition of his progress despite initial plans to loan him out this season.
All of the above means a high degree of responsibility for young Hamilton, and with it comes the inevitable scrutiny. Much to his credit, he doesn’t seem flustered in the slightest.
Tomorrow sees him enter double figures in consecutive Hearts starts for the first time. Perhaps fittingly, Hamilton Academical are the visitors to Edinburgh. The keeper isn’t worried or nervous about what the future holds and he doesn’t set unrealistic targets.
He is the epitome of calmness, embracing the high expectations surrounding him.
“The pressure is good, there’s no point letting it get to you at all. You’ve just got to be strong,” said Hamilton, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I look at one training session at a time. As long as you’re improving, things should go alright.
“The pressure of being No.1 and trying to keep that place in the team is massive. I don’t think people realise how big a club Hearts actually are in terms of expectations. It’s brilliant for a young goalie like myself to come into that environment and try to keep my place.
“I know in my head what I want to do. I need to perform, but there’s no point thinking ahead. I’ll just keep myself right because I want to stay in that Hearts team. There are targets I set but you know what it’s like – things don’t always go to plan.
“I try not to get wrapped up in targets. In my head, I set aims of what I want to do and achieve. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, I just want to be there and make sure I stay in the Hearts team. It’s a massive club and to be playing in the first team as a 22-year-old goalkeeper is brilliant.
“It’s something I dreamt of doing and really wanted. Now I’ve been given the opportunity, it’s now about staying there.”
Hamilton returned to Riccarton on Tuesday having been an unused substitute in Scotland’s opening World Cup qualifier in Malta last Sunday. He is realistic enough to acknowledge that form in the Ladbrokes Premiership over the next few weeks will determine whether he is called up for the next qualifiying tie, at home to Lithuania in October.
“I try not to think about it because there’s no point getting wrapped up in the situation. I know what I want to do. My long-term goal was to be Hearts No.1 and get into the Scotland squad. Now it’s about trying to maintain that. First and foremost, I want to keep my place at Hearts. That’s the main aim.
“Going away with Scotland at the end of last season was a huge confidence boost. You learn so much and to be in that environment gives you more hunger. You say to yourself: ‘This is where I want to be, this is what I want to be doing. I want to be with this team all the time.’
“You’re training with these guys, watching and learning from them, and just trying to take it all in.”
To his credit, Strachan appears keen to nurture the next generation of Scotland internationalists. Beside Hamilton on the bench in the Ta’ Qali Stadium were Rangers’ Barrie McKay and John McGinn of Hibs, whilst Callum Paterson and Oliver Burke played from the start.
“It’s an honour to represent your country at any level,” continued Hamilton. “To be away with the senior squad is massive for me. It definitely gives you more confidence coming back from that into the Hearts game at the weekend.
“It’s just a case of going in and trying to show your stuff on the park and round about the place. You’re there to be a part of it, the gaffer [Strachan] doesn’t really pull you aside. You know what he expects and you go out and do that for him.
“The goal is to make that progress. If you look at the other goalies who are in the squad, if you can’t learn from those people and improve then you’ve got know chance. They’re the best goalkeepers in the country and they’re fantastic.
“It’s a fantastic learning curve for me to go away, train with them and learn from them. You learn small things that they do in training and games. I use it to try and make me better over time.”
With Scotland duty put to bed until next month, Hamilton’s focus is now helping Hearts continue the momentum which was clearly building before the international break. The Edinburgh club recorded a goalless draw at Pittodrie, a 5-1 win over Inverness Caledonian Thistleand a 2-1 win away to Partick Thistle in their last three fixtures.
Hamilton arrive very much as underdogs with only one league victory to date. Their record in Gorgie is particularly woeful down the years. Indeed, their last win at Tynecastle came 39 years ago on October 1, 1977.
Hearts are out to extend that winless run. “We’ve got an excellent team here. Everybody gets on really well so it’s about trying to keep that momentum going,” explained Hamilton.
“After a hard start to the season, we’re sitting third in the league. Hopefully we can continue that in the Hamilton game. It’s a must-win game. Every game is a must-win now if you want to compete.”