FOR years they have swished around in flip flops, had meals prepared for them and generally enjoyed the plush trappings of youth academy football.
Riccarton’s pupils have grown up in luxurious surroundings with astrodomes and sports science part of their everyday lives. In many ways, they have been pampered compared with peers at smaller clubs.
Now they are learning all about the big, bad world on the outside. The likes of Jason Holt, Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson and others at Hearts are tasked with keeping their club in the Scottish Premiership.
Administration and a 15-point deduction ensure they are battling against all the odds. However, no-one can deny their stomach for this fight.
Growing up on lush 3G pitches and playing possession-based football did not prepare them for these specific circumstances. It is a substantial test of their character – one they are standing up to admirably.
So far, eight of the 15 points have been recovered after eight league matches. Hibs and Aberdeen have been beaten, while Saturday’s goalless draw with Dundee United again evinced the youngsters’ grit and resolve.
Bodies flew in front of shots and tackles crashed in as the game neared its end and Hearts’ youngsters clung on to a draw and a clean sheet.
Battling and scratching for every point at the bottom of the league would not have been how they envisaged senior football, but their desire and fighting qualities are clearly just as strong as their technical ones.
“The manager [Gary Locke] has been happy, not just with me but with the whole team,” explains Holt. “He’s delighted with the way we’ve been going about things and the fighting spirit we’ve shown.
“That has to be the case because you need to have the right mix in a team. You can have good technical players and players who like the ball, but at the same time you need to deal with the physical side and I think we’ve done that so far.”
If last weekend was a battling performance at times, this Saturday’s visit of St Mirren will be utterly frantic. The Paisley club are one of those Hearts intend to overhaul at the bottom of the Premiership if they are to stay in the league.
Holt makes no apology for the fact that the game may not be a classic. Despite his short stature - he stands just 5ft 5ins tall with a slender build - he gives the impression that he is relishing the scrap.
“It might be pretty, it might not, but as long as we get three points in the end then we’ll be happy,” he adds. “I think we’ll go out on Saturday to fight, dig in and do our jobs to make sure we get that win. The game is massive. We’ll all be up for it because it’s a huge game and we’ll be looking to take three points.
“This is our biggest game of the season so far. We’ve had the derby game at home and the Celtic game, but this Saturday is massive. Looking at the points totals in the league table, if we can get three and claw back more ground then so much the better.
“I think all the players will go out there as we always do this weekend. We always look forward to the games, going out on the pitch and trying to express ourselves. The ultimate aim on Saturday is to win. No matter how we do it, we want the maximum points from this game.”
Hearts might have taken full points against United had Dylan McGowan’s “goal” not been disallowed for a foul on the visiting goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak. Holt was the alleged guilty party, although it is no surprise to hear him disagree with the match officials.
“I was just in front of the goalie and I think he’s just misjudged the flight of the ball. I’ve seen it back and, personally, I don’t think there’s much wrong,” he says.
“There isn’t much you can do. The decision’s been made, we just need to get on with it. If we’d got three points instead of one it would’ve been perfect to put more pressure on St Mirren. But it’s another point and another step closer to zero.
“We’ll keep fighting on. If we can just keep picking up points as we go, then gradually we will get there. When we do, we’ll be looking at the teams above us to try and catch them.”
On a personal note, the 20-year-old is satisfied with his contribution so far this season. Locke regularly deploys him in an advanced midfield role and allows him freedom to roam and create openings in behind Hearts’ designated striker.
“I’m happy with the role I’m playing,” says Holt. “I’m trying to see as much of the ball as possible and create chances for myself and others. It’s difficult at times in games when the ball is in the air.
“I said I’ve been happy with most of the games but others have kind of passed me by. Even if things aren’t going for me I’ll still do everything I can for the team. I want to try and get the ball on the deck as much as possible because that’s how I like to play.
“I’ve been quite happy with my performances in most of the games. It was good to get off the mark in terms of goals against Celtic because that’s a definite target of mine – to add more goals to my game. In recent weeks, I’ve had more chances to get goals so that’s been pleasing. I don’t have a target in mind for goals but every one is a bonus. I’ve got one so far but I’m determined to add to that. I’m a forward player, an attack-minded player, and it’s my aim to get among the goals this season.”