Of the ten outfield Hearts players who were piling the pressure on Hibs at the end of last Thursday’s Edinburgh derby, five of them were playing youth-team football last term.
Between them, the fledgling quintet of Kevin McHattie, Jamie Walker, Jason Holt, Callum Paterson and Dylan McGowan had amassed only four appearances for Hearts before financial cutbacks saw them drafted into John McGlynn’s first-team squad at the start of the current season. Aside from loan stints in the SFL for four of the five, they were first-team rookies in every sense of the word.
To emphasise the youthfulness of the Hearts side that finished the match at Tynecastle last week, three of them – McHattie, Walker and Paterson – weren’t even born when first-team coach Gary Locke made his Hearts debut as a 17-year-old back in May 1993. Yet here they were throwing the kitchen sink at a Hibs side packed full of established professionals and enjoying their best season in years.
In what has been a difficult season for Hearts on and off the field, Locke feels the gradual emergence of the youngsters as players who can be relied on in the heat of first-team battle has been the major positive. “The pleasing thing for the backroom staff so far this season has been the experience the youngsters have picked up,” Locke told the Evening News. “A lot of people have worked really hard at the Academy, so it’s great to see the young boys like McHattie, Holt, Walker, McGowan and Paterson acquitting themselves brilliantly in an Edinburgh derby.
“Even boys like Scott Robinson, who had a terrific game before he went off, and Arvydas Novikovas came through the Academy, so it was great to see them all handle that kind of atmosphere. If they can cope with that type of game then you would certainly hope they would all have big futures.”
Nurturing youngsters into the first team can be a tricky business, and Locke admits it will take time for Riccarton’s young hopefuls to get fully up to speed with the high-tempo demands of the SPL. From what he’s seen so far, however, the 37-year-old is convinced that more of them will swim than will sink. “Maybe at the start a lot of Hearts fans were a bit apprehensive about throwing so many youngsters in, and a few of them have taken a bit of time to find their feet in the first team, but that was always going to be the case,” he acknowledged. “It’s not easy when you go into the first team; it’s a far higher standard and a much quicker game than what these boys will be used to in the Under-20 league.
“The way the club’s going, these are the boys who are going to take the club forward and the manager has shown that he’s not going to have any qualms about throwing them in the team. They’ve acquitted themselves brilliantly and that can only be good for the club long term.”
As a member of Sandy Clark’s class of the early 1990s, Locke was part of the last big wave of young talent that burst into the Hearts first team at the same time. As a result of the harmony fostered amongst them in the youth ranks, he feels the current batch will enjoy coming into the fold en masse as opposed to being catapulted in one by one.
“It was very similar when I came through to what it is now,” he recalls. “I came through the ranks with boys like Kevin Thomas, Allan McManus, Allan Johnston and Paul Ritchie. We had all played in the youth teams together for a number of years and when you all break into the first team around the same time, you’ve already developed an understanding and a spirit together. You can see from the way they link up together that the likes of McHattie, Walker and Holt have all played in the same team.”
As Locke welcomes the new kids on the block into the first-team environment, he is saddened by the departure of one of the last youngsters to tread the path from Academy to established first-team member. At 23, Ryan McGowan had become Hearts’ most prized asset during this transfer window and it was with a heavy heart that the cash-strapped Tynecastle club sold the Australian – the elder brother of Dylan – to Chinese Super League outfit Shandong Luneng for a fee in the region of £400,000.
“We were gutted to lose Ryan,” said Locke. “He’s had a fantastic couple of seasons for us, but it’s a great move for him in terms of setting himself up financially.
“It just summed Ryan up for me that he wanted to make sure he moved to a club where Hearts got money for him. Although he was Australian, he was a Hearts man through and through and I’m delighted he’s got a good move. We wish him all the best but hopefully we might see him back playing here one day.
“I spoke to him before he left to go to China last week and it was emotional saying goodbye but I’ve no doubt that when he gets a break from the Chinese campaign he’ll be back over here to watch the Jambos.
“It would be the icing on the cake if he can establish himself in the Australia squad. There would no prouder people than the backroom staff here if we saw him playing at the World Cup in Brazil next year.
“Everybody knocks Scottish football but if they come and watch Hearts, they’ll see the amount of youngsters coming through. I don’t think we get enough credit for bringing kids through, but you can see from those that played against Hibs that the future’s bright.”
Many observers were critical of last week’s derby, but Locke feels there was plenty for Hearts to take encouragement from, particularly in the second half when, like much of the season, they did everything but score.
“We were delighted with the performance and commitment the players showed,” he reflected. “We were disappointed we didn’t win it because we created a few good chances. On another night we would have scored a few goals. It looked for much of the second half like we were going to get in front because we were in their half a lot but it just wouldn’t go in for us. Wee Holty went through and had a chance, John Sutton hit the bar and there was the one where Ryan Stevenson followed up and put it wide, so it just wasn’t to be our night. There were certainly a lot of positives to take from the game, though.”
As has been the familiar lament for Hearts throughout the season, Locke feels a failure to turn chances into goals remains the prime reason the club languish ninth in the SPL. It is also the main reason he feels that a Hibs team they have more than matched in each of the three derbies this season sits six points above them.
“There’s been nothing between Hearts and Hibs this season,” he said. “It was only the deflection in the cup game that’s separated us. It really is nip and tuck between us. We’ve had a lot of games this season where, if we’d taken our chances, we’d be a good bit higher in the league.
“The boys are working hard, creating chances and still look like scoring. Hopefully there’ll be a game after the winter break when everything comes together and all those chances end up in the back of the net.
“We certainly feel our performances merit being further up the table. There’s nothing in the league at all. We’ve got a game in hand away to Ross County, so if we can get a couple of wins at the start of the second half then we could shoot four or five places up the league. We aim to be up the top end of the table.
“We just need to find that magic formula in attack and get someone banging goals in on a regular basis.
“We’re creating plenty chances, but just not hitting the net enough. I’m convinced it’ll come in the second half of the season, though, and then you’ll start to see Hearts where they should be – up in the top of the league.”