A BATTLE of Hearts youngsters past and present will ensue on the outskirts of East Kilbride this Saturday. Russell McLean of Lowland League club East Kilbride FC confronts his former Riccarton colleagues Lewis Moore, Robbie Buchanan and Liam Henderson when Cowdenbeath visit K-Park.
It is the first leg of a spine-tingling play-off for the right to play in the Scottish Professional Football League next season. The return match takes place at Central Park seven days later. East Kilbride won the Lowland League ahead of East Stirlingshire and Spartans, whilst Cowdenbeath finished bottom of League Two. Only one can take the last remaining senior league place in Scotland. It is not an occasion for sentiment or fainthearted attitudes.
McLean, 18, left Hearts in January but firmly expects his old pals to be gunning for him. Buchanan, 21, and 18-year-old Moore are on loan at Cowdenbeath from the Edinburgh club, whilst Henderson, 20, is on loan from Falkirk. They were all close buddies at Riccarton but McLean is ready for explosives at the weekend.
“I texted Bert [Buchanan] the other day just to check if they would all still be at Cowdenbeath. I didn’t know if their loans would be up,” said the giant striker. “Bert has been on loan at Cowdenbeath for the last couple of seasons and every year he’s been there they’ve gone in the same direction, which isn’t the best for the club. So I highlighted that to him,” he laughed.
“We had a discussion about football in general but we won’t be pals come Saturday. Me and Bert were quite close when we were at Hearts so, if I get the ball, I’d anticipate him absolutely smashing me to me honest. There won’t be any love lost.
“Lewis Moore is there and Hendo is on loan from Falkirk. These are boys I regard as friends. Moorey and Bert are always a threat going forward. Moorey is tricky and Bert just does some ridiculous things with a ball when he shoots from distance.
“Hendo is solid wherever he plays. He can play at the back or in midfield. These are guys I’ll highlight to the manager because I know they can be threats against us.”
McLean spent two and a half years in the Hearts youth team after arriving from Alloa but the 6ft 4in forward believes he has grown more as a player since stepping down to East Kilbride. “When I was at Hearts, I always got pulled up for not being good in the air and not being physical enough,” he said.
“East Kilbride have focused on getting me better. One of our coaches, Paul Roberts, played as a striker in the Championship and League One and he’s taught me ways to use my body and height.
“In that sense, I’ve changed my game a bit since I came to East Kilbride. I’m not looking to get on the ball as much. I’m trying to hold it, get it wide and then get in the box. I want to be more of a threat in the box. Personally, I feel more clever and I’ve improved in the air.”
Lowland League is an entirely different environment to under-20 football, however.
“There isn’t as much passing, it’s more direct and competitive. Everybody is out to win and playing for bonuses and things. In under-20 football, you aren’t really playing for anything. At East Kilbride, if you don’t perform and don’t get a result, you’ll know all about it. At under-20s, no-one goes out to lose but it is accepted a bit more because it’s more about development. If we come off the pitch and East Kilbride haven’t got three points, the manager and fans aren’t too pleased.
“You’ve got to mature. You’re in an environment where it’s unacceptable to get beat. Obviously it’s unacceptable to get beat at Hearts but there is also the development side. Here, you need to be a man and take what’s thrown at you. And things can get thrown at you, quite literally.”
East Kilbride’s K-Park ground holds only 660 fans with 400 of them seated. Demand for Saturday’s match is naturally high given what is at stake.
“Even some of the players are struggling to get tickets for their families,” admitted McLean. Should the Lanarkshire club prevail and send Cowdenbeath out of league football, they will look to build a new facility to herald a new era for football in the town.
“There is talk of a stadium being built. That was something they told me when I signed,” explained McLean. “If they went in the direction they were hoping, they’d look to move away from K-Park.
“In terms of players and staff, it’s a similar set-up here to what we had at Alloa. There are experienced players and young players, good coaching staff, a club doctor, physios in every night. You can’t ask for much more for a part-time club. The players have a free membership for a gym nearby as well.
“I’m more than happy where I am. I feel I’m progressing. Playing competitive football, even at this level, is great. I’ve taken two or three steps back to hopefully take a couple forward. The manager says I’m learning my trade, playing regularly against grown men.
“Hopefully, if everything goes to plan for us, I’ll be doing the same in League Two next season.”