Since shooting to prominence over the past month or so, Hearts kid Jordan McGhee is finding that life in the first team is not too dissimilar to playing for the Under 20s. Well, some aspects anyway.
If he is not scoring crucial late headed goals for the first team, he’s doing it for the youth team, with the 17-year-old defender’s last-gasp equaliser against the Hibs kids on Tuesday night coming just a matter of weeks after he stepped off the bench to score a dramatic winner for Gary Locke’s ten-man side against Aberdeen.
Likewise, after being thrust into a Hearts team in the midst of a run in which they conceded four penalties in consecutive games, McGhee then found that spot-kick jinx had spread to the Under-20 team when they were on the receiving end of a couple of dubious late decisions at Newtongrange as the Hibees scored two penalties in quick succession to briefly turn the game in their favour.
Indeed Locke, watching the Under-20s from the sidelines, described that first penalty as “the worst of the lot” after McGhee was penalised for kicking Jordon Forster in the head while clearing a corner, even though the Hibs defender appeared to have stooped below knee height. The young centre-back, who has made three first-team appearances, admits dealing with such adversity is part of the learning curve. “Decisions go against you in games and you just have to get on with it,” said McGhee, who was part of the Hearts party that travelled up to the Highlands last night ahead of today’s meeting with Ross County. “You need to keep bouncing back. It’s out of our hands, the decisions referees give. It happened again in the under-20 derby when we felt both penalty decisions against us were really harsh. When things like that happen in a game, you just have to get your heads up and get on with it.”
McGhee, who only turned 17 two months ago, admits he didn’t expect to get his first-team chance quite so soon. And he certainly didn’t anticipate making his debut for Scotland Under-21s, a feat he achieved when becoming the fourth-youngest Scot ever to play at that level in a 4-0 defeat in the Netherlands a fortnight ago.
As a result, the last few weeks have been something of a fairytale for the boy from East Kilbride. “Scoring the late goal against Aberdeen was a great experience for me,” he said. “It was nice to do it again with the late equaliser in the under-20 derby as well.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been noticed more since getting the winner against Aberdeen. I’ve not been out much since then, so I haven’t been getting recognised around the city or anything like that so far. But I’ve been getting loads of messages from my pals or fans on Twitter which has been nice. The fans have been brilliant – it is hard to blank them out with the noise they make sometimes.
“Even when I’m over getting the ball for throw-ins they are all giving me good messages and wishing me good luck. They’ve been brilliant.
“I must admit I’ve watched the Aberdeen goal again a few times. It was only my second first-team appearance and to get the winner in front of the Gorgie stand was amazing.
“I thought I’d have to wait a bit longer for my chance in the first team this season. I was just concentrating on playing for the under-20s and looking to build on what I did with them last season. But the gaffer has given me the call into the first-team squad and I’ve tried to take my chance when it has come along.”
McGhee, who made his debut as a late sub against St Mirren at the end of last season, admits there is a notable difference in standard between first-team and under-20s football, but he feels most of the Hearts youngsters have taken the progression in their stride.
“When you step up to Premiership level, you notice it is more physical and there is a lot more movement,” he explained. “The tempo is quicker and you don’t get as much of the ball sometimes.
“Last year in the under-20s was good preparation, because we were often playing against seasoned pros in some of the games when the opposition included over-age players. It was like that in the under-20 derby this week when Hibs had James McPake playing as he comes back from injury.
“People maybe thought we might be bullied in games this season because we are such a young team, but it hasn’t been like that. We have been trying to build ourselves up physically as well. Our mentality is already strong, trying to get those points back.
“We do strength and conditioning as part of our training with the sports scientist anyway. But you need to do extra yourself, going to the gym and trying to build up your body strength. Sometimes in games, though, skill can beat strength if you are clever enough.”