HE spurned Celtic’s advances four years ago and loyally remained head of youth development at Riccarton. John Murray’s service to Hearts has been rewarded with a promotion to director of football, putting him in charge of the club’s entire football operation. A task and a half, you might say, but the Northern Irishman has unquestionably served his time.
Murray was approached by Parkhead officials in January 2008 and offered the post of head of youth recruitment based at Celtic’s Lennoxtown training centre. He declined and remained at Hearts, but interest from Glasgow illustrated the impact of his work with young players in Edinburgh.
Robbie Neilson, Craig Gordon, Christophe Berra and Lee Wallace are just four examples of kids reared into international footballers by Hearts under Murray’s guidance. The move into a director of football role sees him enter a new chapter of his career, one which will heighten his profile considerably. The increased exposure won’t sit too well with the modest Northern Irishman but few people know the inner workings of Hearts better than Murray.
“I like to get on and do my job and just stay out of the road,” he told the Evening News in a previous interview. That unpretentious attitude is exactly why Vladimir Romanov considers him trustworthy to the point of being almost untouchable. Murray is possibly the only man at Riccarton who has the owner’s implicit faith.
His forthright approach to football development has ruffled a few feathers down the years but boldness and professional diligence are traits Romanov greatly admires. Hence the majority shareholder has granted Murray authority to run football operations as he sees fit. Alexander Metlitski, Anatoli Korobochka, Alex Kolsovski, Pedro Lopez and Jim Duffy have all performed the role under different titles and can testify to the pressures involved.
“It’s a demanding job with a huge amount of responsibility,” explained Duffy. “John has been at Hearts for years and everyone respects the job he has done bringing young players through the ranks. That’s obviously a big part of the reason he has been moved into the new role. Hearts have made it clear they are going in the direction of promoting young players, so there is no better person to assess these young guys than John. He will tap into youths at other clubs because he’s got as much experience as anybody in that area.
“It takes a huge element of trust for Vladimir Romanov to give someone the nod for any job. If he has any doubt about you whatsoever, there is no chance you will be involved at a high level. On the other side, John has been in a very good position at Hearts for years because he’s been captain of his own ship. There’s been a safety valve there because he was detached from the first team. Now that safety valve is gone.
“Maybe John thinks it’s time for a fresh challenge having worked on the youth side for long enough. He is confident enough in his own ability and I’m sure he’s looking forward to the new role. It will keep him on his toes. I don’t think there are too many Hearts fans who won’t see it as a good appointment. I wish him good luck.”
Born in Derry, Murray left home aged 16 and headed across the Irish Sea to work as an apprentice manufacturing engineer with Brown Brothers at Rosebank Ironworks in Edinburgh. He began scouting for Cowdenbeath under Andy Rowland in the 1980s, which is when he first encountered a certain Billy Brown. That contact saw Murray lured to Falkirk to work with Brown and Jim Jefferies, and he followed them to Hearts in 1996.
Initially he only worked part-time until being appointed director of the club’s youth academy when Riccarton opened in 2004. “I’m in charge of the academy here and you do what you want to do,” he was later quoted saying. “Your destiny is in your own hands. At big clubs there are so many hurdles to overcome to get what you want and get people in, but here you’re your own man and if you argue your case you usually get what you want eventually.”
Murray’s latest position sees him control all levels of football at Hearts. When he’s not watching an under-12s’ development fixture, he will be discussing contractual matters with the Lithuanian hierarchy of Romanov and Sergejus Fedotovas. The all-encompassing nature of the job is certain to bring new intensity to his working life.
“If Vladimir Romanov continues to be there, there is huge responsibility on John at first-team level,” said Duffy. “If Romanov leaves, then other people who come in might want their own people implementing their own philosophy at the club. That might be a problem for John in the longer term.
“A lot of managers at Hearts haven’t failed but they’re no longer there. I don’t think you have to fail. Failure isn’t the pre-requisite for losing your job at Hearts because you can be relatively successful and still find yourself out of a job.
“In the director of football role, it’s all go. John will have authority to run everything from first-team level down, including the medical side, the technical side, team preparation, everything. Effectively, he’s ahead of Paulo Sergio so their relationship has to work too. He needs to work closely with the manager and have the manager’s respect. The direct link between John and the manager is very important, as well as John being the bridge between the manager and Vladimir. There is an awful lot in the job.
“John will look forward to it. The responsibilities are huge but John has run the youth department for long enough and been so successful at it. Umpteen players have come through the Hearts system and made a lot of money for the club. There are a few more on the horizon.
“John knows his job very well, but now it’s a little more precarious in terms of his judgment. If he gives a couple of younger boys contracts and it doesn’t work, people know that’s part and parcel of the risk you take with young kids. Previously John’s job was to get kids to a certain level and pass them on. If he’s involved with the first team and makes a few wrong decisions, then that’s when questions start to get asked of you.”
Whatever happens, Murray’s philosophy is clear. “I won’t go in the papers saying we’ll do this or win that. You do your talking on the pitch,” he says. The precession of academy graduates produced by Hearts have done his talking for him down the years. The challenge now is to get the first-team squad doing likewise.