When Dale Carrick was enjoying a promising late-season goal spurt as Hearts were relegated in 2014, he was entitled to hope that, three years down the line, his involvement with the club would extend to more than a role coaching their under-14s.
Since scoring six times in four months in the Premiership as a 20-year-old, the little striker’s career, by his own admission, has drifted badly off course. A serious hamstring injury killed off his hopes of kicking on at Hearts, then a recurrence of the problem effectively did likewise at Kilmarnock last season. Now, after a broken hand last summer dashed his bid for a fresh start at Livingston, he finds himself leading the attack of the lowest-ranked team in the SPFL, trying to help Gary Locke, his former manager at Hearts and Kilmarnock, steer Cowdenbeath off the bottom of League Two.
The relentless injury torment and the rapid drop from the Premiership to the foot of the fourth tier in less than a year has been difficult for Carrick to handle.
“At the beginning, when I got in as an 18-year-old at Hearts, I was thinking ‘this is a great start for my career, I’m heading in the right direction’,” the 23-year-old told the Evening News. “But then I had a really bad hamstring injury that put me out for about 18 months and stalled my career massively. It’s taken me a lot to get back from that, but I do feel like I’ve stalled. I’m just trying to get over all these injuries, prove that I’m not injury-prone and show that I can still get back to the level I was at when I was scoring goals at Hearts three years ago.
“That was the highlight of my career so far, when we had all those young boys coming through, working hard for each other. The Hearts fans have always been class, but they were absolutely amazing for us that year. The second half of that season was the best part of my career.
“I’ve found the last few years since then really difficult. When you’re injured, you need to be as positive as possible, or you just fall into a dark hole. I was lucky when I did my hamstring that I was able to talk to good people who were able to keep me going and convince me there would be light at the end of the tunnel.
“In football, one minute you’ve got highs, the next minute you’ve got lows. You need to have a good attitude to get over all the setbacks but I believe if I keep a good attitude things will turn upwards for me. You never know who is watching you, so I’ve just got to keep working hard and keep a good attitude and hopefully something might arise.”
Since being lured to Cowdenbeath on loan by their former manager and current Hearts coach Liam Fox in January, Carrick has scored four goals in 12 games. Although he had a costly penalty miss in Saturday’s 1-1 draw away to relegation rivals Edinburgh City, Carrick maintains belief that the Central Park side, who have got a seven-point deficit down to three after a good run of form under Locke, can haul themselves to safety in the last four games of the season. “I’m confident we’ll stay up but we could do with getting ourselves back-to-back wins,” he said. “I think it’ll go right to the wire. We’re definitely picking up though. You can see we’ve got plenty quality but we just need to make sure we get the first goal in games. We get such a lift when we do that.
“The gaffer’s come in and given everybody a lift just through the natural desire he has. He talks to everybody and gets us up for the game. He’s given us a real push and lifted the changing room. It’s like a mini-Hearts here. Lewis Moore was a good few years below me but I knew Liam Henderson, Gary Glen, Fraser Mullen and Robbie Buchanan, and obviously the gaffer.”
Having last summer signed a year’s contract with Livingston, who have just been crowned League One champions, Carrick’s decision to move to a struggling Cowdenbeath side in the last transfer window raised eyebrows. After starting just seven games for the Lions in the first half of the season, however, his urge to play more regularly was overwhelming. If Carrick starts away to Stirling Albion on Saturday, he will have started as many games – 13 – in less than three months at Cowden as he did in his previous two-and-a-half years at Hearts, Kilmarnock, Raith Rovers and Livingston.
“Liam Fox, who I knew from my short loan spell at Raith Rovers [in 2015], had been phoning me asking where I stood at Livingston and eventually I took up his offer in January to come to Cowdenbeath on loan,” he explained. “I was getting games at the start at Livi and I was doing quite well but then I broke my hand, so I had to wait for that to heal. That pushed me down the pecking order because the boys had a great start to the season and were scoring loads of goals without me. It got to the point where I wasn’t getting regular time and I decided I needed to get out and play 90 minutes regularly to get my fitness and my sharpness back and start scoring goals again.
“My contract at Livi is up at the end of the season. It’s too early to say what will happen. I love playing football. I just want to enjoy it, play 90 minutes, score goals and get back to the level I was at at Hearts because the darker periods, when you’re injured and not playing, are really hard to deal with.”
Having been kicking his heels on the sidelines for much of the past few years, Carrick is now as busy as he’s ever been when it comes to football. Since January, full-time training with Livingston has been augmented by part-time commitments with Cowden (Thursday-night training and a game on a Saturday) as well as a new role as assistant coach of Hearts’ Under-14s, which involves training on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights followed by a game on a Sunday morning.
“Originally when I was a player for Hearts Under-19s, we had to do our coaching badges to 1.1 and 1.2 standard,” said Carrick, explaining how his coaching opportunity arose. “When I left Hearts, I kept in touch with Alan White [the community coach] and he told me he told me there might be a chance to do some coaching at Hearts if I fancied it. He put me in touch with [academy manager] Roger Arnott who asked if I fancied it. Originally I couldn’t do it because I was through training with Kilmarnock at that time. But then another opportunity came up in January to go in and help Scott McLennan with the Under-14s.
“I work closely with Scott and try and get experience from him and get points across to the boys. We bounce off each other really well. It was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but I really enjoy it. I’ve got a really busy schedule now, but it’s just an extra option for me. I think the fact I’ve come through the ranks as a player was a factor in Hearts inviting me in because it should help the young boys that I’ve come through the same situations they’re currently in.”
Carrick is encouraged by the way Hearts’ Academy is shaping up, with a clear philosophy implemented by Arnott and director of football Craig Levein aimed at nurturing players for the first team. “I had conversations with Craig when I first came in,” said Carrick. “He comes to the training and oversees everything. He tries to get to as many games as he can and he asks how the boys are getting on.
“There are principles of play in place, such as playing out from the back and switches of play that we work on in six-week blocks. The age-groups go all the way down to under-8s at Hearts so they want to get good foundations and give themselves a chance of getting as many quality young boys through to the first team as they can. They want to have a continual conveyor belt of quality players. The facilities at Oriam are unbelievable. I left just before it all got done, so it was incredible to see what’s been done and what is now available to the Hearts Academy. It’s a great attraction for young players.”