“Since I was young, I followed Hearts...” You know the rest. Andy Irving certainly does.
The latest teenager to emerge from the Riccarton youth academy began supporting the Tynecastle club aged four. His father, also Andy, took him to matches before he even started school, which makes his first-team breakthrough all the sweeter.
Irving, 17, revelled in an impressive debut during Wednesday night’s 3-0 win at Hamilton Academical. He sprayed passes around midfield and claimed an assist for the second goal with a piercing through ball for David Milinkovic to score. His parents sat in the stand watching their sonplaying out his childhood dreams in front of them.
Irving is eager to stay in the team against Motherwell tomorrow but knows there are no guarantees given his inexperience. In his favour is the fact Hearts manager Craig Levein clearly feels that, if you’re good enough, then you’re old enough. Irving is the tenth teenager to play competitively for the club this season. Those who witnessed his lovely left foot pinging balls about in Lanarkshire will agree he is likely to stay involved.
“It was about 5.45pm during the pre-match meeting at the hotel when I found out I was playing,” said the midfielder in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I kind of had an idea because Jon Daly [first-team coach] had been telling me to rest up, saying: ‘You never know what might happen.’ That gave me a hint I could be starting but once I found out I was buzzing. I couldn’t believe it.
“I’ve grown up watching Hearts since I was four. My dad used to take me to the games. I’ve played for the club since I was eight and it’s just quite surreal that I’ve actually done it and played for the first team. It’s literally a dream come true. I thought if I kept doing well I could be in the squad and pushing for the bench. That was my aim – to get in the squad and hopefully make the bench, then the next step would have been playing. To do it this early is brilliant.
“My mum and dad were there on Wednesday. My dad grew up as a Hearts fan but my mum didn’t take much of an interest. She has got more involved watching me so she wants Hearts to do well. She was buzzing after the game.
“I just kept it pretty simple in the first half and played two-touch football. I played a couple of nice passes and grew into the game, and then to set up one of the goals was great. I hope I can keep my place but I’ll just need to wait and see.”
Irving’s rapid advance took place on the Costa Blanca earlier this month. He spent the first half of the season on loan at League Two Berwick Rangers and signed an extended loan deal to return there for the rest of the campaign.
In between, he was called up by Levein for the winter training camp in Spain and played in three friendlies against Vitesse Arnhem, Nurnberg and Arminia Bielefeld.
“A lot of the loan boys were called back due to injuries and went on the trip to Spain,” explained the player. “I signed to rejoin Berwick on loan the day before we left but I knew I had an opportunity in Spain to show what I could do.
“The Monday, which was the day before we left Spain, I was told the loan was being cancelled. We played Arminia Bielefeld in a game which wasn’t made public. It was just a third game against one of the German teams there and, after that, Jon spoke to me and said Hearts were going to recall me. He said they wanted to get me involved with the first team but I didn’t think it would happen as quickly.”
However, when you are scoring 20-yard free-kick equalisers against the likes of Vitesse, it seriously strengthens your case.
“That was just another good moment,” smiled Irving. “Things seem to be going my way at the moment and I’m just relishing it. The lads are taking the mickey a bit but it’s only really been two weeks that I’ve been with them. Guys like Christophe, Aaron, Don and Soapy have been absolutely brilliant in helping me.
“The manager obviously has a belief and a faith in me to play. He has seen something in me and feels I can go out there and hold my own. I owe him everything for giving me this opportunity. He has been brilliant for Harry Cochrane, Anthony McDonald and everyone else. It’s all credit to him because I’m learning an awful lot.”
He is still adjusting to the concept of men’s football despite the stint in the lower leagues. To survive at senior level at Tynecastle, it is vital any aspiring youngster adapts quickly.
“Under-20s is good until a certain stage. Once you’ve played a full season of it, you’re playing against the same players your age,” said Irving.
“I went to Berwick on loan and right away I was like: ‘Jesus, this is a big step up from the Under-20s.’ You learn the game. You learn things like playing percentages, seeing out games, playing to the pitches, everything. This is my first taste of the Hearts top team and it’s just that bit quicker. You have to be that bit more streetwise and your touch needs to be better.”
Irving looks naturally comfortable with each touch of the ball, a quality he showcased several times in midweek. The experience of playing for Hearts still feels very surreal for the youngster but he is gradually gaining the respect of his more senior colleagues.
“In training, when you see experienced professionals wanting to give you the ball and trusting you. That’s a big part for me. If you make a mistake, they expect better from you and I like that.
“On Wednesday night, walking into the dressing-room and seeing my strip with my name on the back and my number was a great moment. It’s what a lot of kids dream of. Having my name on the back of the shirt and playing for Hearts means everything to me.”