“I’ve been told Hearts have been needing a left-back for a while.” A slight understatement from Demetri Mitchell, the new loan signing at Tynecastle. He trains regularly with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and the rest of Manchester United’s superstars, so being tasked with solving Craig Levein’s full-back problem shouldn’t be overly daunting.
Juwon Oshaniwa, Faycal Rherras, Lennard Sowah, Ashley Smith-Brown and Rafal Grzelak have all, for a variety of reasons, tried and failed to cement themselves as Hearts’ first-choice left-back. The position has given head coaches Robbie Neilson, Ian Cathro and now Levein persistent headaches over the past two-and a-half years. Hence the move for Mitchell as a “fix” – at least until the end of the season.
The 21-year-old arrived here at Hearts’ winter training camp on the Costa Blanca only minutes before yesterday’s 1-1 friendly draw with Vitesse Arnhem. He will play for the first time today in the second of the Edinburgh club’s two games against Nuremberg. The England youth internationalist is itching for the first loan of his senior career to begin in earnest.
“Hearts got in touch with United because they have been looking for a left-back and I seemed to fit the bill for them,” he said in his first interview with Scottish media. “I’ve been told Hearts have been needing a left-back for a while so hopefully I can help out with that. My aim is to play as much as I can and help the team finish the season strongly.
“I have only turned into a left-back over the last two seasons. I was a winger or a wing-back before that. But Nicky Butt, the Under-23 manager at Manchester United, thought I did the defensive side of the game well. He moved me back there and I have been doing a lot of work to learn the position.
“I think I have been getting better at it, it feels more natural to me now and I’m adapting well. I can play as a wing-back if it’s five at the back or at full-back if it’s a flat four.”
Mitchell knows he is being viewed as the solution to a perennial problem and is perfectly comfortable with being in such a situation. Nor will he mind making his debut in a Scottish Cup Edinburgh derby against Hibs. “I don’t mind pressure, football is full of it and it’s something I try to thrive on it,” he continued.
“I am comfortable with it all, it’s something that doesn’t bother me. I see it as a positive instead of a negative. I know the first game back after the break is in the Edinburgh derby so it will be up to me to impress enough so the manager picks me.”
He came north to develop as a player and learn “men’s football”. After being given a tour round Tynecastle and Riccarton, he made his mind up about Hearts rather swiftly. “Hearts spoke to Nicky Butt [United’s Under-23 coach] and he came to me about it. I felt it was an exciting opportunity so I came up to look around the stadium and the training facilities.
“I thought they were both excellent and this is a good place for me to go out on my first loan and progress my career. Nicky has been brilliant with me since he took over, he also thought this was a really good place for me.
“United have a few people in the loan department who look at potential clubs for players and they were very positive about Hearts. It’s exciting because I want to be playing men’s football, learn and hopefully show people what I can do.”
Having played for Jose Mourinho in the United first team, and mixed with a plethora of millionaires at Old Trafford on a daily basis, it is encouraging to hear Mitchell cite local lad Butt as one of the driving forces behind his career.
“Nicky has been the biggest influence on my career so far, he’s shown a lot of faith in me. He has helped me since he became the Under-23 manager. I am a Manchester United fan, I was born and raised within walking distance from the stadium so he is someone I always looked up to.
“It’s inspirational to train alongside guys like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the other first-team players at Old Trafford. Being around players of that calibre gives you the motivation to go on and achieve the things they have in their careers. You watch how they go about things and try to learn from them as much as you can.
“The senior players at United are great with the younger ones, they are always on hand to give advice if you are looking for it. Everyone looks after each other and the ones who have come through the academy, like Jesse Lingard, are also really good because they know what it’s like.”
Not many get the privilege to play under a living legend like Mourinho, but that opportunity came to young Mitchell on the final day of last season’s English Premier League. “It was special making my debut for the club against Crystal Palace,” he recalled.
“The manager just brought me in and told me that, although every game is important, there was no pressure on me. It was the end of the season and I really enjoyed it. The manager is very good. What you see is what you get from him.
“Obviously I hoped it would lead to more opportunities at United but that hasn’t happened, so that’s why I was so keen to go out on loan. Although I haven’t played again, I was away with the first team for pre-season and have trained with them sometimes.”