Fresh energy and zest augurs well for Hearts as teenagers stake their claim at Linlithgow
For months Hearts supporters cried out for more energy and youthful exuberance in their team. A listless, often pedestrian pattern of play frustrated fans no end last season.
As the 2021/22 campaign gets underway, there are early signs of fresh zest in the side. A clutch of young players featured in Saturday’s first pre-season friendly and many stood out as Linlithgow Rose were swept aside 6-0 at Prestonfield.
There is no cause to get unduly carried away with such a convincing scoreline against an East of Scotland League club. However, Hearts’ performance was a welcome change. Teenagers like Harry Stone, Finlay Pollock, Connor Smith and Makenzie Kirk all made an impact.
Around 500 supporters looked on inside the West Lothian ground and those of a Tynecastle persuasion would have been encouraged by what they witnessed.
Many complaints last season centred around a lack of craft and vigour in midfield areas. Runners getting in behind opposition defenders were conspicuous by their absence despite Hearts winning the Championship title. Initial signs are that could change thanks to some of the above-named players.
Pollock operated in the No.10 role, thriving with licence to roam and make intelligent runs around striker Liam Boyce. The 17-year-old’s quick feet produced the first goal, skipping past Rose defenders Scott Stevenson and Arnie Kasa before an angled right-footed finish over goalkeeper Lewis McMinn.
Smith, 19, started wide on the right and it was his incisive run which led to the second. He was fouled by Linlithgow’s left-back Cammy Thomson inside the penalty area and Liam Boyce converted from the spot.
A much more experienced face, Michael Smith, slotted home the third before Boyce scored another penalty after Gary Mackay-Steven was impeded. In goal, 19-year-old Stone’s only notable task was a fine fingertip save to divert Thomson’s 25-yard shot over the crossbar.
It seemed fitting that Hearts Under-18 coach John Rankin was in charge for the afternoon given the number of academy graduates on display. He deputised for first-team coaches Robbie Neilson, Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest, who were absent due to Covid-related issues.
Rankin sent out an entirely different team for the second half and Armand Gnanduillet soon converted the fifth. An excellent attacking run from young left-back Macaulay Tait was the catalyst.
He played a one-two with Ryan Schiavone and crossed for the Frenchman to prod home. Tait’s clenched fists as the ball hit the net summed up his personal delight at claiming an assist.
The scoring was completed late on when 17-year-old substitute Makenzie Kirk – son of Andy – burst forward from midfield. He collected Mihai Popescu’s long ball, took a touch and executed a composed finish for one so young. He normally plays as a striker so it wasn’t an unusual position in which to find himself.
Some of these young players will be loaned out to gain more experience this season as Hearts return to the Premiership. Others will be worth keeping if they continue to add the much-needed enthusiasm and gusto.
Linlithgow (4-2-3-1): McMinn; Stevenson, Thom, Brownlie, Thomson; Kasa (Trialist 83), Cairns; Hare, Watt, Trialist; Coyne (Wilson 63).
Hearts first half (4-2-3-1): Stone; M Smith, Haring, Darge, Watson; Damour, Halliday; C Smith, Pollock, Mackay-Steven; Boyce.
Hearts second half (4-2-3-1): McFarlane; Docherty, Souttar, Popescu, Tait; Walker, McEneff (Kirk 69); Ginnelly, Henderson, Schiavone; Gnanduillet.