Craig Levein believes the opening of Hearts’ performance school is potentially one of the most significant days in the club’s history.
Balerno High School, just three miles from Riccarton on Edinburgh’s outskirts, will oversee the academic and footballing prowess of Hearts’ academy players from now on.
A partnership between the club and the school will see teenagers signed to Hearts enrol there, where their studies will be supplemented by 90 minutes of elite football coaching every day.
The players will then visit Riccarton to train with their respective age-group team three nights per week.
The agreement mirrors the Scottish Football Association’s seven performance schools across the country. Levein feels it is a huge step as it brings Hearts in line with other top clubs in Scotland. Celtic have a link with St Ninian’s High School in Kirkintilloch for their teenagers, whilst Rangers use Boclair Academy in Bearsden in the same way.
Levein, director of football and manager at Tynecastle, was keen to install a similar scheme. He helped implement Dundee United’s performance link-up with St John’s High School in the city several years ago.
“I’m hoping in years to come we’ll be looking at this as a very significant day in Hearts’ history,” he told the Evening News.
“Part of our original strategy was always to develop our own players. If you want to punch above your weight in football and haven’t got the biggest budget, you have to find good players from somewhere else. That’s the model the club has followed since Ann Budge brought them out of administration three years ago.
“This is one of the most significant things we’ve done in the last three years. It will be another three or four years before we really start to see the benefits of it, but as long as we don’t change course then we will definitely reap the rewards.”
The extra hours of practice on top of training sessions with Hearts academy teams is intended to accelerate the development of young players.
“It’s quite a simple solution to a simple problem. Nowadays, kids don’t play enough football and don’t practice enough,” added Levein.
“When I was a kid, we played football and there wasn’t an awful lot else. I do think they need to train more and practice more and we have to provide that opportunity.
“I’m a big believer in the idea of practising more. If the vehicle to doing that is a performance school, then we want to be part of it.”
Hearts academy manager Roger Arnott has been heavily involved in planning with Balerno High School. Riccarton youth coaches Paul Thomson and Scott McLennan will deliver the daily training sessions at the school.
In return, Balerno pupils will get work experience placements at Hearts and the club will provide a coach education programme for senior pupils.
“This project has been driven more by Roger than by myself,” said Levein. “It’s okay having an idea, it’s making it work and then reaping the benefits. With Roger, Paul and Scott, I’m sure we will see the benefits.”
A statement released by Hearts said: “Heart of Midlothian Football Club and Balerno High School have entered into an exciting new partnership which will see young footballers and students reap the rewards.
“The link up will provide elite level academy youngsters at Hearts with an environment at Balerno where they can combine their studies and footballing education up until the age of 16.
“In turn, pupils at Balerno will have the opportunity to participate in work experience across different business areas at Hearts, while the club will also assist in delivering a coach education programme for the school’s senior pupils.
“Taking inspiration from the Scottish FA’s performance schools, players selected for this partnership will receive an extra 90 minutes of coaching per day at Balerno to supplement their regular training sessions at the Hearts football academy in the evenings.
“The structure of each day’s training session will differ in order to enhance all aspects of the players’ game. Along with hitting the recommended 10,000 hours worth of training time required to produce elite athletes, video analysis will be on offer, as will working on players’ mindsets.
“The partnership is an ongoing agreement between Hearts and Balerno, with a new S1 intake starting every August. When the partnership is fully up and running there will be over 40 pupils from S1- S4 involved, travelling from across Scotland.”
Neil McCallum, head yeacher at Balerno High School, said: “We are delighted to have formed this partnership with Hearts.
“We will provide the opportunity for the boys to have a high quality educational experience, while also allowing them have more contact time with their coaches to develop their football skills.
“The partnership will also allow us to develop strong community links with the club and the pupils from the school will benefit from additional opportunities such as coaching, leadership and skills for the workplace.
“The boys that have started at the school have settled in well and are coping well with the demands placed on them in regard to their education and also developing in football.
“We look forward to this being a long and positive relationship for many years to come.”