PRODUCING young talent has never been more important in Scottish football, but the meeting between Dundee United and Hearts this weekend illustrates the delicate task of managing youth players at senior level.
One team has an almost perfect ratio of experience to youth, whilst the other is drastically unbalanced and suffering in more ways than one.
Hearts’ shortcomings were exposed by a ruthless Celtic last weekend on a day when the only consolation for the hosts was that they were playing a cup tie and not a league fixture. Losing 7-0 at home left their young players ragged and visibly destroyed against the Scottish Cup holders. Not for the first time, the lack of experienced heads on the pitch left them fighting a losing battle.
The situation will not change in the foreseeable future. Hearts remain under a strict registration embargo until they exit administration – expected to be some time in the spring. Until then, they must make the best of vastly depleted resources and battle against an heavy deficit at the bottom of the league which currently stands at 12 points.
It will therefore be with some envy that manager Gary Locke enters Tannadice on Saturday. United, like Hearts, have been rightly acclaimed for their youth development. However, they are reaping dividends from being able to assemble a strong, experienced and hardened squad and then pepper it with the best of their youth academy graduates.
Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong, John Souttar, Keith Watson, Ryan Dow have all emerged from the United youth programme in recent seasons to make a good impact at first-team level. Gauld in particular has lit up the Scottish Premiership this season, although Armstrong is a pivotal player in midfield. David Goodwillie and Mark Wilson are now back at Tannadice having previously emerged from United’s academy to earn the club around £3m in transfer fees between them.
Locke is both philosophical and realistic about the differences between his team and that of his Tayside counterpart Jackie McNamara. He believes Hearts have honed a group of youngsters every bit as talented as those who have helped United soar to fourth place – they have lost only one league match since August – but he recognises the need for experience to guide them.
“I think the only difference is United have a better balance to their squad,” said Locke, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “They have a few experienced players already well established. I went to watch them the other night against Kilmarnock in the cup and their bench had Morgaro Gomis, Brian Graham, David Goodwillie, Ryan Dow, Sean Dillon and Keith Watson. That shows you the strength in depth they have.
“Dundee United have a powerful squad and Jackie certainly has plenty options to change things when he wants to. He’s got the right blend at the moment with some cracking youth players coming in allied to the spine of his team, which has plenty experience. I think the balance of their team right now is probably as good as it’s been for a number of years.
“There are no easy games in this league and, for us, Saturday is a similar scenario to when we went to Pittodrie a few weeks back. We’re going to play a team who are flying at the minute and high on confidence. They were fantastic in the second half against Kilmarnock. It’s a hard game but one we probably need after what happened on Sunday against Celtic.”
Locke will not form any particular tactical arrangement to try and inhibit Gauld. “I won’t make special plans. I think we’ve just got to concentrate on ourselves and lift ourselves after what’s been a treacherous weekend,” he continued. “If you focus on one player in their team, they have others who can cause problems. I like the lad Stuart Armstrong, he’s a really good player. There are others like Gary Mackay-Steven, so United have a lot of quality throughout their team. We’ll give them the respect they deserve but we want to go up there and stamp our authority on the game. We have players who can cause United a problem or two.”
As expected, Locke’s biggest task this week at Riccarton has been lifting morale following the manner of Sunday’s defeat to Celtic. “Training was low on Monday, there’s no hiding that,” he admitted. “We fell on the end of a hammering at the weekend and it was a harsh lesson for us. There is a big gap between the two teams and it’s a lesson we have to learn from, no doubt about it. Hopefully the boys will learn from the game so we can make sure something like that doesn’t happen again.”
Provided Hearts can overcome that disappointment, they have a clear goal prior to Christmas. Erasing the 15-point penalty for lapsing into administration is now within touching distance as the Edinburgh club sit on minus three. Locke knows they cannot afford to dwell on events against Celtic.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easy putting it out of the mind, but you’re right that in that it wasn’t a league game so that’s the only positive to take out of it. We told our young players that’s the level they want to try and get to. They’re playing against top players who play in the Champions League every season. We want our younger boys to improve all the time and get to that level one day. Sunday shows there is still a lot of hard work to do but, if they do it, they’re capable of getting to that level.
“Tottenham lost 6-0 to Manchester City the other week and they’re a really strong side. That shows you can have days like that in football. I’ve told the players it’s important we react in the proper manner. It’s a tough learning curve for one or two of them but you’ve got to take something out of the game. Two or three of the goals we lost were certainly preventable, although some of the others were top strikes and you couldn’t do anything about them.”