Jordan McGhee is champing at the bit. For a player who made his Hearts debut as a 16-year-old and enjoyed 14 starts in the Premiership as a 17-year-old, the teenager’s development has always been a step ahead of most of his peers in Scotland.
Having just turned 19, he is already a regular starter for Scotland Under-21s and, such is his stock level, the tall Glaswegian was the subject of a couple of offers in the region of quarter of a million pounds from English Championship side Ipswich Town last month.
After spending the previous two seasons finding his feet in the ever-demanding environment of the Hearts first team, McGhee viewed this season as an opportunity to kick on and start establishing himself as a first pick. He impressed in pre-season, but so far has toiled to command the game time he had hoped.
Zero Premiership starts out of a possible eight is testament to that. He is hopeful of a rare outing against Kilmarnock tonight in the League Cup, a competition which has provided him with his only two starts of the campaign thus far.
“It’s difficult when you get your debut as a 16-year- old because you just want to keep playing and keep progressing,” he told the Evening News. “I made 17 appearances [including sub outings] in the Premiership when we got relegated and I played a reasonable amount of time last season. I’ve played a decent number of games [34 starts] for my age, but I feel like I need to kick on and try and double that as soon as I can.
“This season I’m just trying to push on as much as I can and play more games than I have in the last two seasons. That’s been difficult because of the way the team’s been playing.
“I played against Everton and Preston in pre-season and I thought I did really well in those two games but the manager picks the team and he’s brought in two really good centre-backs in Igor Rossi and Blazej Augustyn. They’re both experienced so I’ll just need to bide my time and wait for my chance.”
Many of McGhee’s outings have come at right-back, which is deemed by most managers as a less risky position than centre-back to field a youngster. The 19-year-old is mature enough to recognise that this has been a factor in why he hasn’t featured as much as he would have liked.
“I’ve been used at right- back and central midfield in the past but centre-back’s my position,” he said. “I’ve been playing there since I was a young age but it’s a hard position to break into because the team relies on you more than any other position on the park apart from goalkeeper.
“Managers are a bit more reluctant to play a teenage centre-back than they are a teenage striker or winger. If you’re a winger or a striker and you make a mistake or lose the ball, nine times out of ten the other team won’t score from it. But if you’re a defender and you make a bad pass or lose a header, then nine times out of ten it will lead to a goal. That’s the hard part of being a young defender and it’s why you need to make sure you’re consistent when you get a chance and make the manager believe in you.”
Despite his lack of action, McGhee is not losing faith. While some first-team players become disillusioned when they are playing more regularly for the development team than the top team, the defender is focused on maximising every opportunity he gets to impress.
“The management are good at keeping my spirits up when I’m not playing,” said McGhee. “I still get game time in the 20s and the gaffer, Stevie Crawford and Jack Ross will always speak to me and try and keep me motivated. It’s not hard to get yourself up for 20s games because I know I need to use them to impress, like I do in training. That’s how I’ll get my chance.
“I’m not going to get a chance if I’m sitting on the bench doing nothing every weekend so I need to go and play in the 20s games, perform well and try and impress the gaffer.”
He may get a chance in the League Cup tonight, at Rugby Park, where Hearts will attempt to recover from a three-game Premiership losing streak in which they have conceded eight goals.
“I hope to be involved in every game but I just need to be patient,” he said. “We’ve lost a few goals in the last few games but you can’t just blame the defence for that. It’s about the full team defending from the front. But if the gaffer decides to make changes and my opportunity comes against Killie, I’ll be ready to take it.”
If selected, McGhee will come up against some old colleagues, as well as Gary Locke, the manager who gave him his Hearts debut and the first 16 of his 34 career starts. “There are a good few familiar faces in the Killie team as well as the manager who first gave me a chance,” he said. “I’ll be forever grateful to Gary Locke for believing in me and giving me my opportunity to play at such a young age. He was the first guy to give me a chance and that’s what young players need. I was good pals with the boys who went to Killie. I keep in touch with Kevin McHattie. He was great with me when I first came into the team and he’s a really good friend of mine. He’s cup-tied, but I’d imagine Jamie Hamill and Scott Robinson will be involved. They were a big influence on me when I first came into the team as two of the older heads.
“I’m sure they’ll all be fired up to prove a point after leaving Hearts but our players will also be right up for it after losing our last three games. This is the good thing about having a midweek game after a defeat - it gives you an early chance to try and repair the damage. If we can get through to the last eight of the League Cup, that would lift a bit of the gloom. We were knocked out in the early rounds of both cups last season so it’s important that we get a run this season.”
Despite the possibility of leaving Tynecastle prior to the transfer window, McGhee insists he is fully focused on establishing himself as a Hearts player. “The Ipswich stuff is over and done with,” he declared. “It doesn’t play on my mind. It was flattering to have bids put in for me from a top club like them but I’m a Hearts player and until otherwise then my aim will be to get into the first team here. I was always wanting to break into the first team at Hearts and show everyone at the club who has put faith in me what I can do. That’s still my aim. I just want to get my chance to start holding down a place in the team.”