Dale Carrick has started Hearts’ last six matches and is enjoying his first sustained run in the team since emerging from the Riccarton youth academy.
His performances of late more than justify his selection. As manager Gary Locke explains, he is now a hard man to drop.
Prior to the 1-0 defeat by Motherwell on January 11, the striker’s only senior appearances this season were as a substitute. Indeed, he had only five first-team starts in total on his CV.
The last six games have witnessed an upturn in Hearts’ fortunes as they ride the crest of a four-game unbeaten league run, and Carrick’s contribution has been central.
Locke, below, has gone with a two-man attack in a 4-4-2 formation and been rewarded with wins over Ross County and St Mirren, plus draws against St Johnstone and Inverness. Carrick scored his first senior goal in the game at McDiarmid Park and is thriving on his current first-choice status.
“He’s made himself very difficult to leave out,” said Locke, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “Because of injuries and suspensions, Dale’s been given an opportunity and he’s taken it. I’d like to see him get a few more goals because his play certainly deserves that. His work rate for the team is unquestionable. He’s getting into the right positions and we’re seeing the benefits of it.
“You see with any player that, when they’re playing, their confidence grows. Dale is no different. He never showed any signs of impatience at all when he was out of the team. He’s a fantastic boy to work with. He probably realised himself – as a lot of the younger players have – that he’s getting an opportunity a lot sooner than expected.”
Carrick’s recent rise to prominence is no accident, more a carefully planned evolution by Hearts’ coaching staff and backroom team. Specifically, sports scientist Dave Sykes has been instrumental in helping the 20-year-old build the kind of upper-body muscle needed to hold off the hulking centre-halves who inhabit the Scottish Premiership.
“Like a lot of the younger lads, one of the things we noticed early in the season was that Dale had a bit to go physically,” continued Locke.
“Credit must go to him and Dave Sykes, who has been fantastic for us. He’s really hammered home the fact that we needed to get Dale stronger. Especially up top because, as a striker, you need to hold people off and not get bullied with or without the ball.
“Dave has worked tirelessly with him in the gym. It’s worth mentioning as well that Dale’s attitude has been absolutely first class. We’ve seen a massive difference in him physically over the last six months. I feel he’s a lot stronger now. You watch him in training and he’s able to hold people like Danny Wilson and Dylan McGowan off.
“I felt it was the right time to get him into the team because he looked a lot stronger. He seemed ready to go in and play and his performances have been very pleasing.”
For any skinny and gangly kid, bulking up is essential to survive in the often brutal world of Scottish football. Yet it can be difficult to strike the correct balance between increasing body mass and becoming so muscular and heavy that it affects a player’s speed and mobility.
That issue was particularly apparent for Carrick, a youngster whose blinding pace is a major attribute.
“We’ve maybe seen a wee bit of that with Dale in the under-20s games while he was working so hard in the gym,” explained Locke. “Thanks to Dave, we’ve got the balance right now.
“He’s been in the gym and he’s bigger now, and I think you can see he’s benefiting from being that bit stronger. He’s been different class for us over the last four or five games.”
Moulding Carrick into a Scottish Premiership centre-forward has taken time and patience. After physical attributes come mental ones and, where possible, tactical ones, making the correct runs and having good positional sense are vital aspects of any striker’s game, but Hearts are fortunate to be able to call upon a man who was once the very best in the business in that department.
“Dale’s been around the first team for a couple of seasons now. He’s always been quick but there were other bits of his game that we’ve tried to work on,” said Locke.
“For example, sometimes he works too hard off the ball and then, when we get possession, he’s done that much running he’s tired himself out. We’ve worked hard on that and he’s been working with John Robertson as well.
“Robbo’s been trying to help him with the runs he makes and the positions to take up as a striker. It’s never going to happen overnight, but I think you can see the work we’ve done over the last four or five months is helping his game.
“At the start of the season, we told guys like Dale and Gary Oliver that if they’re playing well and scoring goals then they would get a chance in the team. Then it’s up to them to make sure they take it. That’s the scenario with all of them. We do have a small squad, so I think they realise they’re going to get an opportunity at some point.”
Although Carrick had to remain on the periphery of Locke’s team for longer than many others, the patience has paid off. His dynamic approach and natural pace complement attacking partners like Callum Paterson, Ryan Stevenson and new loan signing Paul McCallum. He is also now equipped with the required body strength to survive.
McCallum’s arrival from West Ham has coincided with Carrick emergence as a player to be reckoned with. That gives Locke some welcome options up front, although Carrick is unlikely to relinquish that first-team jersey easily.