Last season Hearts became Europe’s best club for playing youth with 15 teenagers featuring in their first team.
Early indications are that this year will be decidedly different, for an experienced core is already forming the spine of their side.
Saturday’s first Ladbrokes Premiership fixture brought an enthralling 4-1 win at Hamilton Academical. It represented Hearts’ biggest opening league victory for 19 years since they beat St Johnstone by the same scoreline at McDiarmid Park in July 1999.
It was underpinned by a clutch of players with years of footballing nous. Goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal is 32, captain Christophe Berra 33, and fellow defender Aaron Hughes 38. Ahead of them, midfielder Olly Lee is 27 and goalscorers Steven Naismith and Steven MacLean are approaching 32 and 36 respectively.
That sextet, plus experienced 20-somethings John Souttar and two-goal Peter Haring, became the difference between a reasonable start and a thrilling one in Lanarkshire. While teenagers Bobby Burns and Anthony McDonald sat on the bench, with Harry Cochrane and Aidan Keena in the stand, those on the pitch helped Hearts recover from 1-0 down to win convincingly.
Not that manager Craig Levein has simply abandoned all faith in youngsters. Far from it. Callumn Morrison was the youngest member of the starting line-up at 19, and 18-year-old Burns appeared as a second-half substitute.
Yet it was telling that even the Hamilton manager Martin Canning highlighted Hearts’ experience as a pivotal factor in the end result. Levein felt he had to rely on youngsters too often last year but, after a 13-man summer recruitment drive, that is no longer the case. A carefully-structured nucleus is evident already.
“Hearts are a good side, an experienced side. They don’t make many mistakes,” said Canning. “When you look through the core of their team – Steven MacLean, Steven Naismith, Christophe Berra, John Souttar, the big boy Haring in the middle of the park – that’s an experienced side.
“For me, that’s what won them the game. They had the experience and that bit of nous which got them on top of us. Ultimately, we lost the game because of it.
“You switch off against a good, experienced team with players who are sharp up top, and you get punished. That’s what happened to us. We need to get a bit of experience in to help the kids. If we can do that, it changes a lot of things.
“I’m not saying everything is solved by experience but we need to add defensively and create more competition for places. I want to add that bit of experience to help because we lost goals two three and four within ten minutes. It needs a couple of older heads in there just to say: ‘Calm down.’”
Hearts benefitted from that kind of composure after falling behind to Mickel Miller’s goal on 17 minutes. Three minutes later Haring headed them level before a second-half deluge offered the 2663 travelling fans a glimpse of what their new-look side is capable of. Levein felt Miller’s strike was the jolt his players needed after an uneasy start.
“In some ways it was good because we had to show a bit of guts and determination to claw it back to 1-1. I felt we started to control the game after that. We scored four but if we had scored seven or eight, I think that would have been a fair reflection of the match,” he told Hearts TV.
Levein will still ensure Hearts’ emerging youngsters get sufficient game time to continue their development. Cochrane, MacDonald and Keena remain part of the first-team squad and will feature time as the season eveolves.
Lewis Moore, Rory Currie, Liam Henderson and Andy Irving were all loaned out last week to lower-division clubs to augment their progress. All of the above can still play for Hearts reserves during their loans spells and benefit from a competitive environment at that level as well.
The first team was always likely to be more difficult to break into this season than last, for it was obvious Hearts needed the kind of know-how brought in.
One of the younger signings, 23-year-old striker Uche Ikpeazu, is already making a name for himself. He didn’t score at the weekend but still rumbled and rustled his way through Hamilton’s defence, especially in the second half. He could become a key player in the months ahead.
“I don’t think big Ikpeazu pinned our centre-back once in the first half because we were up against him and up on the game. Once we lost that second goal, they start to get timid and sit off a little bit. Then the big guy starts to pin people left, right and centre.” said Canning, again extolling the quality at Hearts’ disposal.
“Good players there go and play off him. MacLean and Naismith play off him. Lee plays off him. It starts to cause you a problem. You can’t allow yourself to be dictated to like that.”
Haring’s contribution in the attacking third was vital. Signed as a centre-back, a move into midfield last month proved worthwhile for the Austrian. He is now a major goal threat at set-pieces and an impressively cultured ball player in open play.
“He went in there [midfield] against Raith Rovers and I thought he made a difference with his physicality, wholeheartedness and his composure on the ball,” said Levein.
“He showed all of that on Saturday but also showed with the two goals that he can add to the goal tally. The second one for me showed how composed he is when in possession of the ball. There was one situation late on when he deliberately nutmegged a player just to put the icing on the cake. I was delighted with his performance.”
With Celtic due to arrive at Tynecastle Park this Saturday, a note of caution is wise. The Premiership champions tend to perform well in Gorgie but Hearts proved last December what can happen if opponents put them under pressure and knock them out of their rhythm.
Another 4-0 victory is unlikely to say the least, although Hearts’ last three results – winning 5-0, 5-0 and 4-1 – confirm an attacking intent which the Glasgow club will be wary of.
“Coming to Hamilton at any time is difficult. To win the game 4-1 makes me feel good. I don’t want to get carried away,” added Levein. We’ve scored 14 goals in the last three games but the opposition maybe isn’t as strong as it’s going to get. We just need to keep our feet on the ground and keep doing the things that have helped us win these last three games.”
One thing is for sure: It will be all experienced hands to the pump on Saturday to see just how far Hearts have come in a short space of time.