Jordan McGhee sets his stall out unequivocally to leave no-one in any doubt: He wants to be Hearts’ first-choice centre-back next season.
Already, he is showing the kind of decisiveness which might help him achieve that aim. Being 17 does not appear to be any deterrent, at least.
Last season represented a major breakthrough for McGhee, who amassed 20 first-team appearances in total after a headed winner on his debut against Aberdeen in August. Most of those outings were at right-back under previous manager Gary Locke. With Robbie Neilson now in charge, McGhee senses an opportunity to establish himself in the central defensive berth he favours above all others.
Competition is already in place in the form of club captain Danny Wilson and 21-year-old Brad McKay. Dylan McGowan was released last month and has joined Adelaide United in Australia, but Neilson is eager to recruit another experienced central defender. He has offered a contract to Darren McGregor, formerly of St Mirren. Again, McGhee is unperturbed.
“I’m definitely a centre-back,” he stressed. “Obviously, I played right-back and left-back for the majority of last season and I’d play anywhere for the club. At the end of the day, every player wants to play in their own position to show what they can do best.
“Hopefully, I’ll be given my chance in my proper position next season under Robbie.
“Last season, I was wanting to push on and try to play a few first-team games, and I ended up playing 20 times. This season, I’ll definitely be pushing for a number one spot at centre-back.
“I’ve learned a lot over the last year which will stand me in great stead for the future, from the highs of scoring my goal against Aberdeen to conceding a penalty in the derby. I’m sure I can take it on to next season if given the chance in my proper position.”
Encouraging McGhee to aim high are recollections of one-to-one coaching and advice from Neilson throughout last season. Even as under-20 coach at Riccarton, he quickly identified the potential in young McGhee. Individual coaching sessions taught the teenager how to survive in top-flight football as Neilson imparted his own experiences of life as a Hearts first-team regular.
“I’ve learned a lot from Robbie. He’s only been with the club a few months after coming in to replace Darren Murray but he’s already taken me for a few individual sessions,” explained McGhee. “He’s worked with me on the basic side of defending and taught me what defenders need to do to stand out and play at the top. The rest will take care of itself.
“You need the dirty side and that’s what he’s been taking me out to work on. Scottish football is a lot different from most leagues.
“You need to win your headers and your tackles. You see foreign sides, and there will be plenty of them in the World Cup, who have centre-backs playing out from the back. It’s a bit different in Scotland. I like to play football from the back but you do need to change and be aggressive at the same time.
“Last season, even as our under-20s coach, Robbie has seen me in training and playing with the first team. He would have words with me to point out what I could’ve done better and what I’d done well. That helps me a lot to see someone who cares about his players so much he will go into that detail and tell you how you’ve done in every single game.”
Hearts supporters are wondering what type of football to expect under Neilson. The new season is still six weeks away and the Edinburgh club are preparing to do battle in an ultra-competitive Championship alongside Rangers and Hibs. Having played under Neilson in some under-20 fixtures, McGhee’s view is that the new head coach will encourage attractive football but will not hesitate to be direct if necessary.
“Robbie does like to get the ball down and play. He likes to play out from the back, which is something I really enjoy instead of just kicking long balls,” said the player.
“At the same time, he knows when you need to change. In games, when it’s tight and the midfield is congested, he knows when to go long. That’s key with a manager.”
Should inspiration be needed at any point during games, the Hearts players can always glance down at their attire. Next season’s home strip is a commemorative kit to honour the club’s former players who lost their lives in World War I. The away outfit, launched yesterday, carries the Foundation of Hearts logo in place of a corporate sponsor.
Ann Budge and her new board of directors were keen to show their gratitude to fans for their unwavering support since the club entered administration 12 months ago. The Foundation crest on the new Argentina-style kit is a very public display of their appreciation.
“It’s a really good gesture for the fans after all the hard work Ann and her backroom staff have put in to get the club to where it is now,” said McGhee. “Hopefully, we can take it on to the field and give the supporters something to cheer again. It’s a really good time for the club and we’re all looking forward to it. I’m sure all the players will come back for pre-season raring to go.
“It will be very competitive in the Championship next year and that will be helpful for players like myself. Last season’s games were really competitive because we were down at the bottom of the table looking to stay up. Next season will be different because there is a lot of pressure on a lot of teams in the Championship to get promoted.
“Everyone will be looking forward to the derbies with Hibs, they’re the best games to play in. Every game against every team will be big this season as we’re trying to get back up to the Premiership.”