Angus Beith knows he is entering a pivotal period in his fledgling football career. The 20-year-old midfielder takes pride from being cast as the longest-serving player at Hearts bar Jamie Walker but is frustrated at only making one first-team appearance thus far.
Tonight’s Youth Cup final against Motherwell marks the end of his time as an academy prospect as he will be too old to be considered an under-20 player next term. After securing himself a new one-year contract last month, Beith will become a first-team squad member next season. As a year-group peer of Jordan McGhee and Liam Smith, he isn’t short of inspiration in his bid to hold his own in Robbie Neilson’s Premiership team. However, he is irked that, largely down to untimely injuries and stiff central-midfield competition, he only has a Petrofac Training Cup outing against Livingston 20 months ago to his name while McGhee, who is five months younger than him, is already closing in on the 70-appearance mark.
“Next season is my biggest yet,” he told the Evening News. “I’m becoming a first-team player so I need to make sure I’m ready in pre-season to push on and get myself a starting spot. It’s very frustrating that I’ve not got more first-team games under my belt. I’m delighted for guys like Jordan and Liam but I want to be out there proving I can play at that level.
“The Hearts team nowadays is very strong, especially in midfield where there are a lot of good experienced players, so it’s a tough ask for a young player to break into it but I feel like I’m more than capable of doing that next season. I feel like I need to start making up for lost time.”
Beith has been in the Hearts academy set-up for more than a decade and has seen plenty friends cast aside in that time. He knows he has done well merely to survive this long but isn’t content just to go down as a long-serving youngster. He wants the established first-team player status that the likes of Sam Nicholson, Callum Paterson and Walker now command.
“I’ve been here since I was nine, and it’s tough to be able to stay here that long,” he said. “Every single year you have to impress because Hearts want the best players possible to play for them. Every year you wonder if you’re going to be kept on but you generally have a decent idea of whether you’ve played enough and done well enough. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve done well every season that I’ve been here.
“I need to keep improving, though. The next step now is the first team and I’m desperate to make that step. It was a big relief to get a new contract because I had a four-month injury at the start of the season and that hampered me a bit. I was confident I’d be kept on after the way I responded to the injury and came back from it.
“If you’re looking in from the outside, it’s probably a bit surprising that I got a new deal because I’m too old for the 20s and I’ve hardly played for the first team, but the manager’s seen enough in me to give me that opportunity. Robbie had me when he first came in to take the 20s [two seasons ago] and I think I showed him that I was a decent young player at that time. Since then, I’ve kicked on physically and I always take things on board, so he probably thinks I can keep improving and become a first-team player here. I’ve been fortunate to get another year so I need to take my chance and prove that I can play at first-team level.”
Despite his lack of game time at Hearts, the articulate Beith has been developing his game by training with the first-team squad over the last two seasons and during loan stints at Stirling Albion and Stenhousemuir. He feels these experiences will help as he battles to get into a Hearts engine room which currently boasts Prince Buaben, Don Cowie, Arnaud Djoum, Miguel Pallardo, Perry Kitchen and Morgaro Gomis, who is on loan at Motherwell.
“I’ve been training with the first team every day this season and I feel a lot more comfortable at that level now,” he explained. “It’s a really competitive group so it’s good for me. Prince, Perry, Don, Miguel, Arnaud, who won player of the year the other night, and Morgaro, who couldn’t even get into it this season – there’s loads of experienced guys there, so it’s a very tough ask but I’ve got belief in myself and my ability.
“Craig Levein and Robbie have been making me more aware of the defensive side of the game, in terms of my positioning and things like that, and it’s helped me watching players like Prince, Perry and Don. You pick up little things all the time from training with them.
“Don’s particularly good with the younger boys. He’s a Scotland internationalist who’s played at the top level in England so you have aspire to do what he did. Every single day he’s trying to better himself and set the tempo in training and things like that. He’s such a professional guy and he’s very good for me.”
Sean McKirdy briefly showed at the start of the season that there is scope for a young midfielder to break into Hearts’ midfield. The diminutive 18-year-old is leaving the club after tonight’s final but was granted opportunities in the first team in pre-season and in the opening months of the campaign at a time when Beith was struck down by injury.
“Sean got a chance at the start of the season so that gives me the confidence and belief that I can do it,” he said. “It’s a bit disappointing because I was thinking if I was fit at the time, then it could have been me. But that just makes you work harder and more desperate to get into the first team.”
Tonight’s trip to Hampden offers Beith a chance to sign off from under-20 football on a high and banish memories of the 2014 Youth Cup final when he was part of a strong Hearts side which lost to Rangers in Paisley following an astonishing penalty shoot-out in which all 22 players had to take a kick.
“I’ve got really bad memories of that night,” he said. “It was so disappointing. Sam Nicholson scored and then Billy King scored and we looked like we were going to see it out until a mistake from our keeper [Jordan Millar]. Then it went to penalties and anything can happen at that point. It went all the way to the goalkeepers and their keeper saved our keeper’s penalty in the end.
“I was 18 at the time so it was the biggest game I’d been involved in. I was desperate to win it so it was really disappointing the way it went. Now we’ve got a second chance and I’m as desperate to win it as I was two years ago. We said before the game two years ago, ‘we’ll probably never get another chance to win the Youth Cup’ but luckily enough it’s come round for boys like myself, Jordan, Liam, Robbie Buchanan and Sean.”