Partnering a full internationalist 22 years his senior and in direct opposition to a prolific striker 18 years older and several pounds heavier than him, Chris Hamilton was welcomed into the world of professional football with a proper test of his mettle on Sunday.
For a centre-back standing at just 5ft 7ins tall, the 16-year-old could hardly have picked a more formidable opponent to be pitted against on his Hearts debut than Kris Boyd – the top scorer in Premier League history and also the most lethal marksman in the top flight this season.
Conscientiously assisted by 38-year-old sidekick Aaron Hughes, however, Hamilton came through his maiden first-team appearance with flying colours and was singled out by manager Craig Levein for praise as a makeshift and youthful Hearts team escaped Rugby Park with a creditable 1-0 defeat and stopped Kilmarnock striker Boyd adding to his campaign’s tally of 23 goals.
“I was watching Kris Boyd for a couple of days before to see if there was anything I’d be able to do to stop him, but he’s different class,” Hamilton told the Evening News. “He’s one of the best strikers in Scotland just now so getting the experience of playing against him is something I’ll learn a lot from and something that will hopefully help me in the future. Playing against him, I knew the physical side of it would be a big part, but I think I adapted well enough.
“I felt like I did not too bad – he didn’t score, so that’s good. To start with, he seemed to be trying to play directly against me but I don’t know if he was getting the success he wanted so he started playing on both of us. I got a few legs in on him and Aaron was speaking to me the whole time, which made it a lot easier.”
Hamilton made a point of singling out Hughes for thanks. The veteran Northern Irishman captained the team in what may prove to be the final appearance of a long and illustrious career, and the Kelty youngster is grateful that he got the chance to make his debut alongside such an experienced colleague. “It was a massive help having Aaron beside me,” he explained. “He spoke with me from the warm-up right through the 90 minutes. He’s obviously someone at the club I look up to massively. I watch him every day, how he trains and how he goes about his day-to-day life. He’s an inspiration. To get the chance to play beside him was something I’ll never forget.”
Hamilton, who had been on the bench in recent weeks after being named the club’s Under-20s Player of the Year, knew on Friday he would be making his debut as the scale of Hearts’ injury and suspension issues became apparent. He was one of five teenagers in the starting line-up and one of four 16-year-olds to make their debut at Rugby Park, with Cammy Logan starting at right-back and midfielder Connor Smith and attacker Leeroy Makovora coming off the bench. “I’d been looking forward to it ever since I knew I was going to be starting,” said Hamilton. “I was just desperate to get the game started after that. I knew Christophe Berra and Michael Smith were suspended and that John Souttar had got injured against Celtic so I had an idea there weren’t many defenders left. On Friday, Austin MacPhee said to me that there’s only two centre-backs available and I was one of them, so I knew then I was going to be in the team. I was nervous obviously, but I was also excited. I knew the game wasn’t necessarily one we needed to win so that took a bit of the pressure off. It was my debut, so I wanted to make sure I enjoyed it.”
Alongside relative giants like Hughes and Boyd, Hamilton’s lack of height was apparent. He adequately made up for any shortage of inches, however, with a mature and intelligent display which left the travelling support highly impressed. “I’m obviously aware I’m not the biggest centre-half in the world but I try not to let that affect me,” he said. “I understand the game very well and I try to use my aggression and what strength I’ve got to the best of my ability. It’s something I’m aware of and I’m in the gym working hard to try and get bigger.
“I would say I’m a ball-playing centre-back but others might disagree. I like having the ball at my feet but I like to think of myself as a good defender first and foremost. With players like John and Christophe here and watching them play every week, I can take bits and pieces from their game. With Christophe’s aggression and John’s technique and the way he uses the ball, you can take so much from that.”
At the end of a in which he has exceeded his own expectations, the Scotland Under-17 cap is hoping to continue his progress next term. He explained that the trust in youth that Levein has shown this season has given every youngster at Hearts hope that they can make the step into the first-team if they apply themselves correctly. “I wouldn’t have thought anything like this would happen to me when I started playing the game I love as a little boy, but to get the chance to make my debut for Hearts at 16 is massive for me,” said Hamilton. “It’s the gaffer who’s trusting us and giving us the opportunities. We’ve just got to go and do what we normally do and trust ourselves to perform when we get the chance. The squad was obviously short on Sunday which is why so many of us were involved, but whatever the reason we get in, whether it’s side to injuries or simply being for best player in the position, we’ve got to make sure we take the opportunity. Hopefully I’ve shown to the manager that I’m capable of competing at that level and pushing for a place next year. I’ve just got to work hard in the off season and make sure when I come back in pre-season I’m ready to go, and take it from there. I need to be ready to keep playing week in and week out for the 20s and if that takes me to the first team or our out on loan, then great.”