OPTIONS are thin on the ground as Hearts seek a deputy left-back for this weekend. Danny Grainger’s two-match suspension for stamping on Kilmarnock’s Dean Shiels exposes the lack of cover in a key area following Lee Wallace’s £1.5million transfer to Rangers in July.
Grainger misses Saturday’s visit to St Mirren and the subsequent fixture with Dundee United at Tannadice two weeks later. Natural left-backs who could replace him are conspicuous by their absence within the Tynecastle first-team squad. Manager Paulo Sergio must either deploy an established player out of position, such as Eggert Jonsson, or promote his under-19 left-back, Kevin McHattie.
Sergio’s form thus far suggests he will go for experience. Scott Robinson and Ryan McGowan are examples of Hearts youngsters who have impressed during the brief game time given to them this season, but still they cannot command a regular start. The manager seems to harbour a penchant for proven CVs. However, McHattie is the only player on Hearts’ books who can claim to be a specialist left-back in the mould of Grainger and Wallace. Eighteen is a tender age to be saddled with the responsibility of defending for a high-profile SPL club but the kid procured from Dunfermline’s youth academy last year knows his position better than anyone.
First-team experience can only enhance McHattie’s long-term development, especially given it will be a short-term arrangement with Grainger available again on Saturday, November 26, when Inverness visit Tynecastle. McHattie has one first-team appearance to his name having appeared as substitute for the last ten minutes of Hearts’ 3-0 victory over Aberdeen in August. Starting at New St Mirren Park on Saturday would be a considerably more stringent test.
A regular at Hearts’ under-19 matches is the Raith Rovers manager John McGlynn. He previously coached youths and seniors at Riccarton and has agreed several loan deals to take young Hearts players to Stark’s Park. He feels McHattie is ripe for promotion and advised Sergio that any risk would be worth taking.
“I watched the first half of Hearts Under-19s against Dunfermline on Saturday and I saw them at Murray Park against Rangers a few weeks back,” said McGlynn. “It’s difficult to see the whole of an under-19 game when I’ve got a 3pm kick-off with Raith, but I do see 45 minutes of 19s matches before heading off to my own game.
“At his age, McHattie looks like the finished article for an under-19. He has an excellent left foot, as you would expect from a natural left-back. Physically he’s a good size, he has good legs to get up and down the pitch, covers the position well and defensively he’s adequate. He would need more experience at first-team level defensively but you are only going to get that by playing and learning as you go.
“McHattie sees passes, he has a variation of passes, and I think he has a lot of good qualities which I’ve seen for myself in under-19 games. If it isn’t going well with McHattie in the first team, there is that reassurance that Hearts have their experienced left-back returning after two games. It’s a win-win situation. You would hope the player handles it and he gets some experience at the top level. He already trains with the first team so it might not be a step beyond him. I’m sure he could handle it.”
McGlynn acknowledged that Sergio’s hesitance so far to grant young players a sustained first-team run should temper any excitement within McHattie. “Perhaps that could go against him,” continued McGlynn.
“At every football club, the manager will make the final decisions. That’s the only way it can be. He has to make that final choice on who plays because it’s his job on the line at the end of the day. He might feel more comfortable with experienced players.
“Everyone saw how well the younger Hearts lads did down at Tottenham. Now, you could then say a lot of them played against Ayr United and it didn’t work. But I don’t think you can just give up. Robinson’s done really well having been hanging about the first-team squad for a while. He’s probably got a bit more experience than someone like Ryan McGowan. But I don’t think any of them would be a gamble.
“Paulo Sergio has been reluctant to put young players in, but there may come a time when he goes for it and gives a young lad a chance to go and express himself. This could be the time.
“You have the assurance that you’re going to get Grainger back after a couple of games, so you could put the youngster in knowing he’s not going to be there that long. Unless he totally surprises you and does exceptionally well, and you always hope that’s going to be the outcome. I remember Paul McMullan went into the first team at Hearts years ago, probably thinking he was going to play for a game or two. He ended up playing 18 or 19 games before he disappeared a bit. He got a long run of games and, at the time, it was quite a surprise that he played so much. But he took to it really well and got longer game time than anyone expected. That proves you just don’t know with young players, they can surprise you. You can’t really tell how they will adapt until they’re thrown in and it’s the same all over with kids.”
Sergio’s other options, many of them rather tenuous, all involve shunting players out of position to compensate for Grainger’s absence. Jonsson, McGowan, Jamie Hamill, Rudi Skacel and Andy Driver could all fill in at left-back, although it is debatable whether playing any of them there would be riskier than calling in McHattie. In the case of Jonsson, moving him would create an additional quandary in midfield with Ian Black unavailable for the next three matches through suspension.
Kids can often thrive when given the chance to sink or swim at senior level, a fact McHattie will be clinging to right now as he waits to learn if he is required for the assignment in Paisley. “The Hearts manager probably knows what he wants to do,” said McGlynn. “Eggert has filled in at left-back before, although he’s not a natural left-footer. In the past, Craig Levein played Alan Maybury at left-back for a spell, Patrick Kisnorbo was there for a while, so it can be done. I’m sure there are others who have played there despite being right footed. For a couple of games, I’m sure Hearts will deal with it. It might be time to play a young lad and give him experience. Other younger players have gone in and done quite well. But, if the manager wants to stick with experience, then Eggert’s probably going to be the one.”