Craig Levein is viewing Harry Cochrane and Anthony McDonald as “the start of a potential conveyor belt of young players” at Hearts after the highly-regarded teenage duo this week finalised new contracts with the club.
Cochrane, the 16-year-old midfielder, signed an improved deal until 2021, while it was confirmed yesterday that McDonald, the 17-year-old attacker, has done likewise.
Despite their tender years, the two players have featured heavily in the first-team squad this season and Levein sees them as the trailblazers for an academy which had to effectively be replenished with fresh talent after the club emerged from administration in 2014.
“We set out nearly four years ago now to develop our own talent and although we’ve had other players in in-between, I see those two as the start of a potential conveyor belt of young players coming into the team,” said the manager, who led the academy rebuild in his role as director of football. “Those two have been a breath of fresh air.”
Levein is thrilled to have secured Cochrane and McDonald on long-term contracts, especially after the disappointment of losing 16-year-old Marc Leonard to Brighton and Hove Albion recently. The manager is keen to see both players enjoy a sustained run in the Hearts first team before they consider moving on.
“They want to play and that excites me more than anything,” said Levein. “We could have sold both of them already, easily, but I don’t want to sell them. I want them to play 100 games for Hearts and then we can look at it again. I want them to play for Hearts and I want the Hearts supporters to watch them. I have been fortunate enough to watch them for the last four years and it excites me and I want people to see what myself and the academy coaches have been watching.
“They’ve got good parents and agents. The conversations with the parents and the agents are always the same, ‘look, we’re not developing players to sell them to clubs down in England at 18, 19. If they outgrow Hearts in the future, we can look at it but it’s not our intention to sell players from Hearts at 18 19 when they’ve not really been involved in enough first-team matches’.
“I don’t want any of our players to go down to England to sit in an under-23s Premier League team where, okay they might still progress, but they won’t progress as they will here.”
Cochrane, who was initially contracted to Hearts until 2020, had no qualms about extending his deal even though he has been linked with several other clubs since breaking into the first team seven months ago.
“I haven’t paid attention to any of the other stuff (the speculation),” he said. “I have just been concentrating on Hearts and when I was offered the deal it was an easy decision. The way the club are promoting youth, I’m just hoping to get even more chances to play in the first team. That is the main reason I signed the contract.”
Cochrane explained that the faith Levein has shown in him was a big factor in him pledging his future to Hearts. “I have known the gaffer for about three years now,” said the midfielder. “He used to always come and watch the 15s and the 17s games and to be at a club where your gaffer watches the youth teams week in, week out, you get to know him. He speaks to you that is the way you build the trust. It is good to know him on a personal level and I assume that is not the same with every manager.”
Cochrane is one of several teenagers who have appeared in the first team this season who remain in the under-20s dressing-room at Oriam.
“I need to keep doing my jobs and cleaning the boots and I am happy with that. It would be a good reward to get into the first-team dressing room but I quite like being in with the boys. It’s a good laugh in there.”
Cochrane feels he has coped well with being catapulted into the public eye at an age when most of his peers are still at school.
“It hasn’t really bothered me,” he said. “I still go out with my pals and see a lot of them and I would like to think it has not changed me in any way.”