For years, Darren Murray’s life has been a myriad of indoor astrodomes, video analysis, sports psychology and elite coaching courses. He’s been up and down the United Kingdom, across Europe, even to Asia and America. The feeling he gets at Riccarton is unique, which is why he rejoined Hearts.
Investment in youth is growing at the Edinburgh club. Murray’s return as head of coach education coincides with the launch of Hearts’ own performance school at Balerno High, merely three miles from the club’s training ground on the Capital’s periphery. It is another step on the progress ladder just over three years since administration.
Development excites Murray and he has noted gradual growth behind the scenes at Hearts. He left his job there as player development manager four years ago after coaching the likes of Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson, Sam Nicholson and Jason Holt from youth team to seniors. He join Coventry City but, for the last two years, has been head coach and coach mentor with Box Soccer.
The training programme for youngsters was developed by Ian Cathro, the former Hearts head coach, and is now owned by John Colquhoun. It is implemented at younger age levels within the Hearts youth academy so Murray has been in and around the place for some time.
The Balerno High partnership is an extra incentive for him to come back. It brings Hearts in line with other top Scottish clubs who operate individual performance schools separate from the seven run by the Scottish Football Association.
Celtic’s academy players attend St Ninian’s High School in Kirkintilloch, where their academic progress is supplemented by daily football coaching on top of what their club offers at night. Rangers use Boclair Academy in Bearsden in the same way. Craig Levein, Hearts’ director of football and manager, felt it essential for his club to install a similar scheme. He helped implement Dundee United’s performance link-up with St John’s High School several years ago.
Levein and Hearts’ academy manager Roger Arnott have now enlisted Murray to educate the coaches who will nurture future generations of youth proteges.
“When Craig and Roger initially approached me to come in, I thought it was a good opportunity and I’ll tell you why: There is something big happening at Hearts,” Murray told the Evening News. “When I walk into that indoor arena and look at all these young players, there is a feeling that something big is happening.
“I’m not just saying this because I’m involved with Hearts. It’s a general feeling of something brewing. I’ve been to a lot of academies in the UK and I don’t think that feeling would be anywhere but Hearts.
“Kids are coming off the training pitch dripping with sweat. People might think that’s just a wee thing but I think it’s great. The environment for these young players to develop is phenomenal.”
Murray steps into the shoes of none other than John Robertson, who was educating Riccarton youth coaches prior to becoming Inverness manager.
“The role is one of a coach mentor, someone who goes in and develops a relationship with the coaches,” explained Murray. “A word I always use when you’re talking about young players is ‘standards’. I know the standards getting set with the younger age-groups because I see it through Box Soccer at seven-a-side level.
“It’s quite a big remit but want to make sure the 11-a-side teams have the same standards. Craig and Roger have worked tirelessly at that academy and what they’ve got in place is first-class. They have principles of play which must be adhered to and the coaches will be developed over time. That’s my job.
“By developing a relationship with the coaches, I’ll get a relationship with the players as well. It will take me time to get everybody’s name but, given time, I’ll know every player in that academy.”
Coaching coaches is a big part of Levein’s overall philosophy, something Murray buys into. He is adamant the Tynecastle first team will one day be dominated by academy graduates once again.
“I do coach education for the Box Soccer coaches, who work with younger teams in Hearts’ academy. Scott Crabbe is working with the coaches who deliver Box Soccer, too, and he’s been a brilliant addition. Myself and John Colquhoun understand coach education is hugely important. If you educate coaches, those coaches educate players and those players become better. Development is a marathon, not a sprint. Given time, I’m convinced the Hearts first team will be littered with players who have come through the academy. There’s absolutely no doubt. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
“It’s exciting times. Hearts are putting a lot of money into developing their academy. I’ve been up to Balerno and seen the players and coaches there.”
Working for Hearts is a labour of love for a lifelong fan. Murray appreciates the privilege of pulling on that maroon shirt. “Players need to understand that playing for Hearts is a big thing. Everything is going well but I think we can always get better.”
In his mind, he knows the identikit model of his ideal youth coach. “It’s a mix between a command coach and a discovered-learning coach. A command coach has high standards and big discipline. A discovered learning coach will ask the players questions because the most important thing is for the players to understand what they’re actually being taught.
“If we can get a mix between command and discovered learning, it will be key. A lot of coaches are purely command, a lot are purely discovered learning. I believe there has to be a line drawn with the players.
“If they are asked a question and come up with the right answer, the coach is happy with the learning process. The standards coaches set will be mirrored by the players they coach. You gain a connection to players by being energetic and enthusiastic. Then comes discipline. Connection and discipline are two key things for any player and any coach.”