“IT WILL be almost a first-team game.” Robbie Neilson’s prediction for Saturday’s SFA Youth Cup semi-final can be taken as fact, with many established faces due to play.
Callum Paterson, Sam Nicholson, Dale Carrick, Billy King, Jordan McGhee and Gary Oliver are all settled members of Hearts’ senior squad but are still eligible for under-20 football and will be involved. Kilmarnock are also preparing to utilise first-team players like Chris Johnston, Craig Slater, Mark O’Hara and Robbie Muirhead.
The timing of the match allows both teams to call on recent graduates of their respective academies who are still of age for the under-20s. Hearts’ and Kilmarnock’s first teams are inactive this weekend with precedence given to the semi-finals of the senior Scottish Cup, a tournament they both exited at the fourth-round stage last year. That has seen focus shift to the Youth Cup semi being staged at Tynecastle.
Unlike the Under-20 league, over-age players are not permitted in the Youth Cup. Calling on all available experience is vital if aspirations of reaching next month’s final are to be realised. Neilson, the Hearts Under-20 coach, will rely on all his so-called “big boys” for what he considers to be a vital game.
“All the boys who are eligible for the under-20s will play,” he told the Evening News today. “Paterson, Nicholson, Carrick, King, Oliver and McGhee will all be there.
“It will be almost a first-team game because Kilmarnock will be putting out all their eligible players as well, and a lot of them are in the first team down there. The boy Slater has played a lot of first-team games, plus there’s O’Hara and Muirhead and guys like that. It will be a good test for the boys and it should be quite a good atmosphere.
“Hopefully we can attract a decent crowd as the boys have a chance to go and win a trophy. We’ve had a few meetings about it and the thing with the youth cup is you only get maybe two or three chances to win it. You might get 15 or 16 chances to win the actual Scottish Cup if you reach the senior team, but you only have so much time to win the youth cup before you’re too old.
“It would be great for the young boys’ careers if they could win a trophy when they’re just getting started.”
Paterson has made 37 first-team appearances for Hearts this season. Nicholson has 21 to his name, Carrick 23, King 29, McGhee 19 and Oliver eight.
That so many under-20s are members of the senior squad is a positive side to Hearts’ financial toils. Neilson remembers an era not so long ago when the youth team was viewed as a detached entity, with no-one able to break through. Vast amounts of money lavished on international players like Takis Fyssas and Edgaras Jankauskas around 2005/06 made it impossible. Neilson was on the playing staff then, along with an inordinate number of others.
“This is a great opportunity for young players to make an impression,” he said. “This is probably the best time to be at Hearts if you’re a young boy who is maybe 17, 18, 19. In years gone by, very few boys got a chance to play in the first team or even train with them.
“I remember playing for Hearts in a first-team squad of 35 players. There were plenty young players at the club then who used to go away and train each day and you very rarely saw them. They never really got brought down to train with the first team at all. It was very rare for any of them to appear.
“It was a kind of separate club, really, because there was such a big first-team squad. Some boys at Hearts at that time were 22 or 23 but had never made a first-team appearance. They gave long contracts to youngsters who weren’t going to make it at the club and who were just there training. That’s one of the issues which caused the problems they have now, handing out big contracts to kids and then they lose their desire to go and play. They can think they’ve made it because they get handed a five-year deal.”
Fast forward to the present and many teenagers are just a handful of games away from a senior call-up. “Nowadays it’s different. Boys at 16 or 17 can come into the under-20s and they’re only five or six good games away from getting in about the first-team squad,” continued Neilson.
“A few months of good, consistent performances and they get moved up to train with the first team. If they impress again they can get a chance. The process is a lot quicker because we have such a small group of players. Now they have that opportunity and this is a chance for them to grasp it. They need to give it everything they’ve got and dedicate themselves to it to have the best opportunity of making a career in football.”
The consequence of elevating an entire generation of youngsters to first-team level is that the youth squad is ravaged. Hearts sit bottom of the Under-20 league having been forced to use players as young as 14 during the campaign. Kick-offs have been delayed on occasions because kids they are intending to play are still at school.
It is a situation Neilson inherited from his predecessor at Riccarton, Darren Murray. “In the Under-20 league, our form has been a bit up and down. It can be like that with the younger teams,” said Neilson. “One week we have three or four of the older boys with us, then the next they aren’t available maybe because of first-team duties.
“That means we’re bringing in 15 and 16-year-olds, which makes a big difference. You’re allowed three over-age players and an over-age goalkeeper in the Under-20 league and, whenever we’ve played against teams with a full quota of over-agers, it’s been very difficult for us.
“The likes of Angus Beith have played a lot of games this year. He’s just turned 18 and has played the majority of the under-20s games and been involved with the first team in a friendly. Liam Smith is the same age and has played a lot of matches too. He’s also been training with the first team. This semi-final is good experience for them.
“Every time you go up a level you need to learn quicker. Some of our boys have had that experience this year. Saturday will be another experience for them but it should be a really good game for everyone to look forward to.”
• The SFA Youth Cup semi-final between Hearts and Kilmarnock takes place at Tynecastle on Saturday with a 2pm kick-off. Entry prices are £5 for adults and £3 for concessions.