Academy boss: The only way to play is the ‘Hearts way’

Roger Arnott says that he is relishing his new role at Riccarton. Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson, below.
Roger Arnott says that he is relishing his new role at Riccarton. Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson, below.
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The footballing philosophy instilled in Hearts’ first-team this season is to extend throughout the club’s academy.

The style of play implemented by head coach Robbie Neilson will filter through every age group to ensure youngsters develop by following the “Hearts way”. It is part of a wide-ranging plan to improve the Riccarton coaching programme under new academy manager Roger Arnott.

Discussions are currently taking place involving Arnott, director of football Craig Levein, Neilson, his assistant Stevie Crawford and under-20 coach Jack Ross. Their aim is to cultivate a specific playing method based around ball retention and building from defence. It has taken Hearts to the top of the Scottish Championship with four wins from four matches so far and management now want the formula used throughout the club’s youth teams.

“We are trying to develop the Hearts way of playing. So the Hearts style of play that we have in the first team will be the way that our academy teams are trained to play as well,” said Arnott in an exclusive Evening News interview. “Myself, Robbie, Stevie, Jack and Craig are having a lot of discussions about that at the moment.

“We want to set the tone with the first team and then get the under-20s playing the same way – then do the same with the under-17s, under-15s, under-14s and under-13s. We will look at what type of player we want to bring to Hearts and we will look at our recruitment to fit in to that programme.”

Arnott describes the “Hearts way” as a forward-thinking approach which needs technically strong footballers. “We have to develop technically good players who can play in any system the manager throws out,” he continued. “We’re looking at teams who can play it from the back, players who can rotate positions, cause other teams problems and who like to go and run at opponents. They also need to understand when to do that and when to pass the ball. We want teams that control the game and dictate the tempo and keep the ball, but also press quickly and win the ball back when we need to.

“There are game management aspects which players aged 17 and 18 can take in but 11-year-olds and 12-year-olds can’t because they don’t have the mental capacity to do that yet. It’s teaching a style of play – circulating the ball quickly, playing out from the back, trying to dictate the tempo of games and having clever players who can rotate positions.”

Youth development helped keep Hearts alive over the last year. The plunge into administration in June 2013 proved the worth of a well-run, organised, progressive academy. Riccarton stood up to the test by providing an entire squad of first-team players to see the club through troubled waters, despite relegation from Scotland’s Premiership. They are now thriving in the Championship so questions may be asked about why anything needs to change.

A new era arrived when administration ended in May, heralded by new owners, new players and new staff. The reorganisation included a new director of football in Levein, a man who considers proper youth development a must. There was also a promotion for Arnott, who is lesser known than Levein but now fills a position of equal significance.

Arnott coached Hearts’ under-12 team last season and ran the junior academy involving boys aged 12 and under. Now he finds himself managing the entire youth department at Riccarton. It is a fairly steep ascent. He is 34 years old, running an organisation with more than 100 kids all desperate to be the next Sam Nicholson, Billy King or Jamie Walker. Rather than feel daunted, he is relishing the responsibility to nurture more young talent. He simply intends to add to what is already a strong part of Hearts’ make-up.

“It’s a huge job,” he said. “This is a great academy which is producing players at the moment and has produced many top players in the past. I’m delighted to get the chance to see if I can add one per cent to all the different aspects of it. I want to bring our sports science team together with our medical team and our performance analysis team to work with the coaches and just improve everything in different areas.

“It’s a great job and it is a big responsibility but I’m really enjoying it. I’m always one who has worked hard, put the effort in and done my homework. That’s the kind of attitude we want in our young players here and in our coaches. For me, this is an extension of the eight to 12 programme in that I’m now looking after kids aged eight to 17. Myself and Jack Ross are working closely together to make sure the player development programme is appropriate. We want to develop that and make it better, and we do a lot of work with the coaches to make them better.”

Arnott’s own background details spells with Dunfermline Athletic, Fife Council, sportscotland and the SFA, all as a youth or community coach. He joined Hearts in 2010 and coached the club’s under-11 and under-12 sides before becoming junior academy manager. He is experienced, although his area of expertise is youths rather than professionals. Managing Hearts’ academy is his most prestigious role to date. So, what are his own philosophies and which footballing model does he subscribe to?

“My philosophy is always to develop technique. The focus of all our training sessions at a young age is technique. It’s not about developing shape and it’s not about developing teams to compete. It’s obviously good if your group of players can compete well but actually it’s about developing individual players. It’s about developing skills and technical aspects of the game. Things like first touch, protecting the ball, coping well in a one-versus-one situation. These are the foundations of football player development that we need in this country.

“When I started out at Dunfermline, I had Hamish French and Jim Leishman as mentors. They taught me a lot about the game, how to manage people and players’ expectations. I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks in Spain a few years ago with Valencia and Villarreal and I’ve brought back some of the good things they do. It’s all about having players that work hard and have the right attitude. The modern-day player has to think a lot and has to be clever. He needs to take on different information from coaches and adapt to a very tactical game. He needs to have the technical and physical capabilities to do that.

“I don’t have a specific model I follow. I don’t go by the Dutch philosophy, or the Spanish or the German. We could all start following the German model now because they won the World Cup, but that’s not for me.

“Scotland has it’s own culture and we have our own type of player. We can learn a lot from other cultures and that’s all I’m trying to do.”

Young Scots in the Hearts youth academy are being encouraged to learn from their elders in the first team. That singular style of play will now form the core of the club’s identity.