IF the Hearts substitutes’ bench was like waiting backstage for Jack Hamilton, he is now about to assume a leading role. Years of the goalkeeper’s patience have been rewarded with the No.1 position at the Edinburgh club, and he is ready to seize the moment.
Hamilton will start tonight’s Europa League first qualifying round first leg against FC Infonet at Tynecastle. With Neil Alexander gone, there is no more frustrating hanging around. The 22-year-old will wear the No.1 kit this season – an important psychological step for any young goalkeeper – and everything appears to be in place for him to establish himself as Alexander’s rightful successor.
He’s done the years of step-by-step progress through the Riccarton youth academy. He’s experienced more soulless under-20 fixtures than he cares to remember, not to mention three loan spells at lower-league clubs. Indeed, Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson planned to loan Hamilton out again this season before changing his mind.
Perhaps the keeper’s end-of-season call-up to the Scotland senior squad influenced Neilson’s rethink. Maybe it was the fact talks to sign Matt Gilks were unsuccessful. Possibly Hamilton’s three appearances for Hearts at the conclusion of last season were enough to convince coaching staff of his maturity.
Whatever the reason, the time has come for him to step out from behind the curtain and take centre stage; leap forward from the technical area; move from background to foreground. This is the chance he has waited for since joining Hearts aged 14 in 2009. The gloves are on and he is out to grab the opportunity of a lifetime.
“The plan was I would go on loan this year. I played a some games towards the end of last season and it was good experience. It stood me in good stead for trying to get a club to join on loan and further my development,” Hamilton said.
“After the season finished, Craig Levein [Hearts director of football] had phoned me and said I was going away with Scotland. I was over the moon with that. It was a great learning curve for me to train with the senior national squad. Coming back to Hearts for pre-season, I was still expecting to go on loan.
“On the first day, I came in and the gaffer said I was going to stay and try to fight to be the No.1 at the club. It came as a surprise. I was absolutely delighted to hear that. It made me want to work even harder to show what I can do here.
“I try not to think about what’s happening and what’s not happening. I just prepare myself for each day and try to improve. The talk was I would go out on loan but I didn’t know where I would be going. I was just coming back for the first day of training and hoping to be better. I wanted to improve while training with Hearts, whether I was going on loan or not. I just try to take it day by day.”
He isn’t entirely a novice in the European arena. The teamsheet from Hearts’ last European tie four years ago at Anfield carries Hamilton’s name as an unused substitute. He was just 18 at the time and revelled in the atmosphere of a 1-1 draw with Liverpool, despite the 2-1 aggregate defeat.
“It’s a great achievement for Hearts to be in Europe. I was lucky enough to be on the bench when we played Liverpool. Jamie MacDonald was in goals that night. It was one of my biggest nights in football. To go down to Anfield and experience that was amazing. Now, I can hopefully play a part tonight. That would be brilliant. I definitely feel I’m ready. I want to go into the game, do the best I can and hopefully it all goes well.
“Tonight is a massive game for the club and a massive game for myself. I’m just trying to prepare like it’s any other match. We have to go out and do the job properly. Just because we don’t know much about this Estonian team doesn’t mean we go in half-heartedly. We have to give it our all, like we do every day in training and in every game.”
There will be an air of tension around Tynecastle this evening. European football carries that unpredictability and Hearts are trying to negotiate the first of four Europa League qualifying rounds. The intensity won’t ruffle Hamilton. He is determined to stay grounded, even with the coveted No.1 on his back.
“I’ll take it as it comes,” he said. “A game of football is a game of football, no matter who it’s in front of. Once you cross that line, it’s 11 men against 11 men. You don’t know what can happen. I don’t want to get carried away. I want to keep learning and improving.
“To be honest, a number doesn’t really mean much. I’ve got the No.1, that’s the my squad number and that’s what you always dream of. As a goalie, you always want to be the No.1. Realistically, the number doesn’t mean anything. It’s all about performing on the park. That will determine whether you stay in goal or not.”
At the back of his mind will be the fact Hearts tried to recruit a more experienced first-choice keeper just a few weeks ago. Gilks, 34, has joined Rangers on a two-year contract. The prospect of another goalie signing is still there, with 25-year-old Swede Viktor Noring on trial at Riccarton. Hamilton remains philosophical.
“Neil Alexander was great with me so, anybody who was coming in, I viewed them as someone to learn from,” he explained. “Gilks has been in Scotland squads and played in the English Premier League. Anybody like that, I would’ve used them to make myself better. I’d have learned from them and pushed myself to compete against them.”
That humble outlook can only serve Hamilton well as he seeks to shrug off all challengers and prove himself to be the undisputed Hearts No.1.