AT an age when many of his mates are squeezing plooks and spiking hair for nightclub rendezvous with young ladies, Jordan McGhee is preparing for Ibrox.
Replacing Callum Paterson would be an arduous task for anyone, but McGhee has been primed for the big occasion for years. Hearts need a right-back to face Rangers a week on Sunday and the 18-year-old is likely to be given the responsibility.
Former Riccarton youth coach Darren Murray watched McGhee hold his own playing under-19 matches at the age of 15 and has no doubt he will relish the challenge at Ibrox. While pals were out socialising and living the teenage life, the young defender was forever focused on becoming a top-level footballer. That preparation will now undergo a stringent test if Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, hands McGhee the right-back role in Glasgow following news that Paterson is out for around two months after knee surgery. Liam Smith, another 18-year-old whom Neilson appointed captain of Hearts Under-20s, is the other candidate. He is a natural full-back, while McGhee favours centre-back. However, McGhee has 22 competitive games to his name and Smith has only made three friendly appearances at senior level. Paterson himself does not turn 20 until October, but already has two seasons and over 70 competitive outings behind him.
Sunday at McDiarmid Park is Hearts’ final pre-season friendly before Neilson must decide on his team to face Rangers. All eyes will be on Govan the following weekend as the most intriguing Scottish second-tier campaign in history begins. McGhee will thrive on that pressure, according to Murray.
“He’s not the type of player to get fazed,” said Murray, recently promoted to first-team and under-21 coach at Coventry City. “He is still young and he’s new to that situation. Ibrox is a big place and it’ll be pretty full so there’s pressure that comes with that. I think Jordan will be able to handle it. Putting him into a game like that certainly wouldn’t be a concern to me. I think Robbie would probably agree in terms of Jordan’s overall make-up. He won’t let anybody down. In fact, he’ll probably flourish.
“I remember playing Jordan when he was 15 years old in the under-19s and under-20s. He was used to playing against older boys. We always tried to challenge the young players to handle it against older ones. Maturity is something Jordan’s got. He likes to have a laugh and a joke with team-mates, but when it comes to football, you only have to look at the Scotland Under-21 team. He’s a regular there so the people at national level think a lot of him.
“The key to any young player’s progress are the sacrifices they make at an early age. Jordan is one who has always sacrificed things to make sure he’s right for his football. He didn’t concern himself with any of that other stuff, he just focused on becoming a top football player. It’s like a culture. If you have a majority of players focusing on their game, everybody else follows suit. We tried to create that culture at Hearts.”
Perhaps McGhee’s biggest asset is that maturity, both emotional and physical. He stands over 6ft tall and has already represented Scotland at under-15, under-16, under-18, under-19, under-20 and under-21 level. His versatility is also a major strength given he can play anywhere along the back four.
“Jordan is very grounded, a sensible lad with a good head on his shoulders who comes from a good family,” continued Murray. “He’s probably more of a centre-back than a full-back but he played there a number of times last year. The position won’t be new to him.
“He’s a very good defender who anticipates danger. For a defender at his age, that’s one of the key things so I don’t think it would be a massive problem playing him at full-back.
“Liam Smith is more of a natural full-back, but, in terms of experience in the first team, Jordan is the right fit to step in for Callum. Brad McKay could also do a job there. Jordan fits the bill because he’s very good on the ball, always uses it well, he’ll get forward when he can and his decision-making is reasonably good. He’s a great kid, a great character and he’s a learner. You only need to tell him something once or twice and he’ll take the information on board.”