PLAYERS like Craig Gordon, Christophe Berra, Andy Driver and Lee Wallace represent Riccarton’s golden generation as kids honed by Hearts into international-class stars.
Darren Murray, the club’s under-19 coach, is now ready to promote another group which may even eclipse their predecessors. Yesterday, four of them jetted to Slovenia with Scotland for European Under-19 Championship qualifiers against Slovenia, Wales and Belgium.
Leading the pack is 18-year-old midfielder Jason Holt, regarded by Murray as the finest pupil ever to graduate from the Hearts youth academy. That accolade indicates the class of a player who made his first-team debut in the final game of last season at Tannadice. He joined goalkeeper Jack Hamilton, midfielder Callum Tapping and striker David Smith on Scotland’s flight out of Glasgow.
The quartet will face Slovenia tomorrow, Wales on Friday and Belgium on Monday as part of a youth international squad with high hopes for the future.
Hearts have the equal highest number of recruits in Billy Stark’s 18-man group along with Celtic. Not since the class of Berra, Driver et al, has there been such excitement within the corridors of Riccarton over the potential of the under-19s. Murray acknowledges that not all of them will make Paulo Sergio’s first-team squad.
However Holt, last season’s SPL Under-19 Player of the Year, is an absolute certainty. “Jason Holt is fantastic, the best youth player I’ve worked with in terms of his ability, his balance and his vision,” said Murray. “He’s just such a grounded young lad as well that he’s an absolute joy to work with. There’s not a great deal more that I can give him. Jason played at ten years old the way he does now. He was brilliant at ten and still is. He’s so gifted, probably the best that I’ve seen come through here.”
Those who have seen Holt in action will note his similarity to Barry Ferguson in playing style as well as physical appearance. Murray feels he may have more to offer than the former Rangers and Scotland captain.
“I think he’s more forward-thinking than Barry Ferguson,” he continued. “When Barry Ferguson was young he was probably more a forward-thinking player. Latterly, he’s been more a holding midfielder.
“Jason breaks from midfield and his ball protection is second to none. That’s something only that boy can do because it’s very difficult to coach ball protection. When players step over that white line, it’s up to them to do it. The way he puts his body in front of players is excellent.
“Let’s be honest about it, he’s 60 kilos and 5ft 7in.
“We keep telling him Andres Iniesta is 64 kilos. I’m not going to say he’s as good as Iniesta but Jason Holt is an absolutely terrific footballer.”
Smith debuted at senior level alongside Holt in that Dundee United encounter, whilst Hamilton has appeared on the substitutes’ bench recently and Tapping is a prodigious new recruit from Tottenham Hotspur’s youth team. “Callum has done very well since he came here,” said Murray. “We had him with us in pre-season and took him to play at a tournament in Oban. He fits in to the way we want to play because he passes and moves.
“He has a really good engine and technically he is pretty gifted. He sees a pass, has a nice touch and good balance about him. Overall, just a good player. We have a lot of gifted players here in the youth team at Hearts. Jason Holt is pretty gifted, as is Davie Smith and Jamie Walker. Callum fits into that category.
“Jack Hamilton has also done very well this year. He played the last ten or 11 games for the under-19s last year when he was still an under-17 player. He still has another year to go at this level so we’re delighted with his progress. Our goalkeeping coach, Jonathan Craig, has worked extremely hard with him. He puts him through rigorous sessions and does video analysis with him and stuff like that. Jonathan is due a big thanks for Jack’s progress.
“Davie Smith is a wiry type of player. He’s good on the ball, likes to take players on and he’s a threat in the final third. We have high hopes for him as well. It is a big year for a lot of our under-19s. Like any football club, you can’t take everybody on and there’s going to be disappointments at the end of the season. We’re looking to have a successful year this year first of all. Whether that means Jason Holt and Davie Smith go and play in the first team, or the youth team win the league or a cup or something, progress will always be made. I think supporters don’t particularly mind if the youth team finish second or third in the league, as long as one or two are playing in the first team. That’s our job, to try and get players through.
“As long as the players come here when they are young and spend their apprenticeship here under my guidance, if they give me everything then I will make sure I try to do certain things for them afterwards. I try to get players sorted out with clubs and I speak to people about their attributes. If a boy comes in here and works extremely hard over two or three years, if he’s diligent and conscientious but maybe isn’t quite good enough to go and make it in our first team, we will go out of our way to get that boy a club. If he’s been here and been coached at a decent level all the way through, he should be decent enough to get another club.”
Perhaps the biggest indication of Hearts’ capability at under-19 level this year came from Celtic’s tactics in Friday afternoon’s youth match at Riccarton. Under coach John Kennedy the Parkhead youths habitually play open, expansive football in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation. Yet they employed a 4-5-1 system in Edinburgh after being carved open by Hearts last year. The concession was a mark of respect, and helped Celtic etch out a 2-0 win despite the home team monopolising possession.
Murray was anything but despondent afterwards. Much of his enthusiasm stems from the rapport struck with his new superior. He and Paulo Sergio share the same philosophy on football and the Portuguese was impressed watching the youth team’s patient, passing display against Celtic.
“The new manager is my type of coach. He’s a great guy and his two assistants, Alberto (Cabral) and Sergio (Cruz), are brilliant guys. They speak to us daily and we are part of a team here now. Everybody is together and I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the manager. I’ve watched his coaching as well and it’s first class. He wants to get the ball down and pass it, that’s what we’ve been trying to do at youth level here for two or three years now..
“I spoke to him after the Celtic game and, apart from our play in the final third which was the problem, he was very complimentary. They are all very good guys, they don’t take fools lightly and they know exactly what they want. And they will get it.”
With youth products like Holt, Hamilton, Tapping and Smith ready to supplement their squad, the chances of success can only increase for Hearts’ Portuguese contingent.