THE stage is set for Jason Holt to make a major impact at Hearts this year. Paulo Sergio has promoted the 18-year-old from the club’s youth academy and now considers him a first-team squad member.
From conversation, it’s clear Holt isn’t overawed by the opportunity.
He no longer trains with Darren Murray’s under-19s despite being eligible for the youth team until the end of the season. After a five-week loan spell at First Division Raith Rovers, which ended earlier this month, Sergio decided the diminutive midfielder should return to Riccarton and join Hearts’ senior squad.
The manager then named him amongst the substitutes for recent matches against St Mirren and Inverness.
Holt has taken the promotion in his stride. A mature, level-headed youngster, he is neither carried away with nor intimidated by his new status. To him, this is another rung on the football development ladder he first stepped on to aged nine, when he left Musselburgh Windsor Boys’ Club to enrol in the Hearts youth academy.
Since then, the progress has been relentless. Holt has represented Scotland at youth level and earned an under-21 call-up last year.
He was the SPL Under-19 Player of the Year last season, making a first-team debut in the final game of the campaign, and signed a new, three-year contract with Hearts just weeks later to ensure he remains at Tynecastle until 2014.
To look at him, he is slight and short on stature. But therein lies a multitude of talent. Murray regards him as “the best young player I’ve ever coached”, which is quite an accolade when you consider the graduates of Riccarton in recent years. Sergio clearly concurs with Murray’s view that Holt is one for the future.
“My loan was due to expire at Raith and John Murray [director of football] took me aside and said the gaffer wanted me back at Hearts,” Holt told the Evening News.
“Obviously, I was really happy to hear that because it means I’m in his thoughts. He also said I’d be training with the first team every day, and that’s been the case since I came back.
“Being on the bench against St Mirren and Inverness was great. As well as training with the first team each day, it’s nice that I’m in the squad at the end of the week. Scott Robinson, Ryan McGowan and David Templeton are in there just now and that’s what you want as a young player coming through.”
There are inevitable good-natured jibes from team-mates to contend with, but Holt regards those as a small price to pay. “You get wee comments like ‘gaffer’s son’ and things like that. Whoever is involved with the first team gets a bit of stick. Fraser [Mullen] had it recently when he played, they were calling him ‘first-teamer’ and stuff. It’s just a bit of banter and it shows the spirit we have. It helps that the under-19s are winning a lot and doing really well, so we can afford to have a laugh and a joke about the place.”
On a more serious note, Holt is well aware of the long-term implications of Hearts’ finances and how they may shape the senior squad this year and next. “For young players, if Hearts are looking to offload some experienced guys then it gives us more of a chance to play,” he said.
“Every young player would thrive on that chance. The boys give that wee bit more because they know players might be leaving. They think, ‘I could get a chance here’ and it makes them work harder.
“My aim is to push on and play in the Hearts first team. That’s my ambition for the moment. I’m looking for gradual progression and if it happens that way I’d be delighted. Players my age are in their last year at under-19 level but we know there are a lot of players below us who can make it to the first team as well. If they listen to Darren and what he’s telling them, they will do well here.
“Hearts have shown that they will give young players an opportunity. All the coaches at every age level at Hearts are good and I was taught well by all of them. I couldn’t single one out, although Darren had a big influence on me latterly, so I have to thank him.
“He played me at a young age when I first went into the under-19s and I’m sure everyone would agree with me that he’s a good coach. He gets the best out of players. A lot of people don’t see the amount of work Darren puts in. I think he is undervalued, but now people are beginning to notice him because the 19s are doing so well.”
Success brings a pressure all of its own, but Holt is undoubtedly equipped to deal with expectations rising. Winning the SPL Under-19 Player of the Year award – an honour based on voting from opposition coaches – forced him to handle some gushing praise at a tender age.
“Expectations do rise when you get these awards,” he admitted.
“I just had to keep working hard because there’s nothing else you can do. You’ve won the award so you keep doing what you were doing beforehand because that’s what get you there in the first place. Most of the comments about me are nice and encouraging so I take them all on board. If it’s coaches’ comments, I try to take in what they’ve said and learn from it.”
Previous flirtations with the first-team didn’t always go as smoothly as Holt’s recent step up. A smile cracks across his baby face as he recalls an invitation to join the senior squad on the 2010 pre-season training camp at the Il Ciocco complex in Tuscany, Italy. He was just 16 at the time.
“That was the first big involvement I’d had with the first team. I hadn’t even trained with them,” he explained. “We knew the first team were going to Italy but none of us ever thought we’d be considered to go. The under-19s and reserves were due to go to Oban on the Friday and I was on my way to the academy that day knowing the first team were leaving for Italy on the Saturday.
“On my way, Darren phoned me saying I had to see him straight away. When I got there he said the gaffer [then Jim Jefferies] wanted a word with me. I went upstairs not knowing if it would be good news or bad. Thankfully it was good. The gaffer sat me down and said, ‘we want you to come with us to Italy.’ I was delighted. But then I remembered my passport was out of date. On the Saturday morning, I had to go to Glasgow first thing to get a new one sorted out.”
That week in Italy proved an eye-opener, although nowhere near as much as the recent loan spell at Raith.
“You get taught a different aspect of the game there,” said Holt. “At under-19 level, the way Darren has taught us to play, it’s total football all the time. We play a passing game based around one and two touches. Then you go to Raith and they’re looking for three points every week, so it’s a fight and a battle.
“That’s the different side to the game I learned. I think it’s a part of football that you need to learn. Every player needs to have that side to their game and I learned a lot from being at Raith. It helped make me a better player.”
Now he is eager to put everything into practice and gradually impose himself in the Hearts first team. The opportunity awaits, and the sky would appear to be the limit for Jason Holt.