Growth accelerates at Hearts as Tynecastle's international contingent reaches 18
Nobody expected this. Rebuilding a football club is normally a steady and gradual project, but Hearts have ripped up the traditional blueprint in favour of their own maroonprint.
Tynecastle officials devised an ambitious restoration plan just over two years ago following a controversially-enforced relegation to the Scottish Championship. Long-term aims were European football, cup finals, sellout crowds and a squad full of international players.
All of the above have come to fruition at breakneck speed. Sunday evening’s Scotland call-ups for Stephen Kingsley and Barrie McKay were the latest piece in a quickly-assembled jigsaw. Hearts’ squad now contains 18 players with various levels of international experience as that maroonprint is followed to the letter.
Kingsley and McKay trained with the national team at Riccarton on Monday morning ahead of a flight to Kraków for Tuesday’s final UEFA Nations League tie against Ukraine. Ironically, both players already hold one Scotland cap each having debuted in the same match – a 3-0 friendly defeat by France in Metz on June 4, 2016.
They aren’t travelling to Poland merely to make up the numbers. Both want to add a second international appearance to their CV and, if possible, cement a place in a competitive squad assembled by coach Steve Clarke. Their involvement highlights the strength of the club they are representing.
Goalkeeper Craig Gordon, midfielder Robert Snodgrass, winger Gary Mackay-Steven and striker Lawrence Shankland are fellow Scotland internationalists at Hearts. Centre-back Craig Halkett and back-up keeper Zander Clark have also been in the squad this year.
Midfielder Cammy Devlin and full-back Nathaniel Atkinson played for Australia against New Zealand on Sunday. They would have been joined by centre-back Kye Rowles but for injury.
Defender Lewis Neilson and midfielder Connor Smith returned from Scotland Under-21 duty, while goalkeeper Liam McFarlane and midfielder Finlay Pollock are currently with Scotland Under-19s.
Factor in the Northern Ireland pair Michael Smith and Liam Boyce, plus England Under-20 cap Alex Cochrane, and it becomes clear that Tynecastle’s international contingent is underpinning the club’s recent resurgence.
“It’s part of life at Hearts that we should be producing international players. That’s what we want to do,” said manager Robbie Neilson in conversation with the Evening News. “We want to continue getting these guys in there and playing. It gives everyone else at the club something to strive for.”
It also makes attracting new players easier. “It’s a big pull for everyone. For the Australian boys coming over, the big attraction was to come to Europe and then try to get to a World Cup. Australia have managed to qualify and I would expect Cammy, Kye and Nathaniel to be involved in that.
“If there are other players looking at it, they can see it’s a great pathway so we are delighted. We just hope that all the guys off on international duty can go and enjoy it and come back fit.”
Clarke and Neilson spoke via telephone on Sunday as the national coach prepared to call in Kingsley and McKay. Injuries to Scott McKenna, Kieran Tierney, David Turnbull and Nathan Patterson allied to a suspension for Scott McTominay necessitated reinforcements.
Defenders Declan Gallagher from St Mirren and Josh Doig of Verona had already been drafted into the fold. Kingsley and McKay are overdue international recognition given their consistent club form.
“I’m delighted for the two of them, the call-ups are very much deserved,” said Neilson. “They have both been exceptional for us over the last year or two since they joined the club. It’s good to see them getting involved with Scotland.
“From our point of view, it’s always good to have players away with international squads. It gives everyone a wee lift. We have the two Australian boys away, Craig Gordon away, Lewis Neilson and Connor Smith with Scotland Under-21s, plus Finlay Pollock and Liam McFarlane with the 19s.
“Now we have another two called into the full national team and that’s great. It’s exactly what we want.
“I spoke to Steve. He said they had a couple of injuries and he was looking to bring a couple of our boys in so we were absolutely delighted to be able to do it and help out.”
Avoiding defeat against Ukraine in Kraków would be multibeneficial for Scotland. They would win their Nations League section and earn promotion from League B to League A, secure a Pot 2 seeding for the 2024 European Championship qualifying draw, plus guarantee a play-off spot for that tournament should they require it.
It is another major occasion in Clarke’s tenure. “Scotland have done exceptionally well over the last couple of years with Steve in charge,” Neilson pointed out. “He’s got an established group of players and it’s up to anybody who wants to get into that group to force their way in.
“Sometimes it takes a couple of injuries for players to get in there. Our boys have benefitted from that this time. A couple of injuries have allowed our boys to go and show what they can do. It’s up to them now.
“You want your players striving to go to that level. They go away with international players and they see the levels they are competing against. You hope they bring that back and have a drive to continue getting to that level.”
Hearts’ internationalists won’t get quite as much preparation time for Saturday’s Premiership meeting with Rangers, although Neilson played down that issue.
“It’s not a massive interruption, to be honest. The Scotland game is Tuesday night so the boys will all be back with us on Thursday. That gives us Thursday and Friday to prepare for the weekend.
“The Australian boys might be a wee bit later. They will be back but, with all the travelling, they might only do full training on the Friday. They will still be here to do some work on Thursday so it’s not a huge issue.”