Harry Cochrane emerged as one of Scottish football’s leading lights last season; a performance school protege bucking the trend of underdeveloped teenagers.
In 24 appearances for Hearts, the midfielder showed remarkable maturity as a 16-year-old who at one point had the Celtic captain Scott Brown tucked safely in his back pocket.
Now it gets considerably tougher. Eleven new recruits have arrived at Tynecastle Park so far, with more to follow. Four of them will compete for the central midfield role which belonged to Cochrane for much of last season. Olly Lee, Oliver Bozanic, Bobby Burns and Ryan Edwards are the new faces, with Don Cowie, Arnaud Djoum and Ross Callachan the other midfielders already in situ.
Cochrane had everything his own way last season as the Hearts manager Craig Levein toiled for viable midfield options and, by his own admission, was forced to rely on kids. Now 17, Cochrane is a year older and wiser. Thanks to a tortuous pre-season training regime on the Gullane sand dunes, the quad muscles on his thighs are also a touch more developed.
He overcame a bout of illness to make his first pre-season appearance against Partick Thistle at Cowdenbeath on Sunday. The way he scarpered around after entering the fray as a 63rd-minute substitute for Edwards suggested the youngster knows he is in a serious fight for game time.
Fuelling his enthusiasm and energy for the battle ahead is the return of Steven Naismith to Edinburgh. Cochrane is very much a disciple of the Scotland internationalist, who is back at Hearts on a season-long loan from Norwich City. Naismith spent a fair portion of time guiding Cochrane whilst on loan at Hearts last season and the young upstart is eager to learn more.
“I was buzzing when Naisy returned, it’s brilliant and he’s such a great guy,” says Cochrane. “He’s such a professional and he makes sure everything is done properly every day, so it’s good to have another year learning off him.
“I go over my videos with him and you’ve got to listen to what he’s got to say because he’s played in the [English] Premier League. If that’s where you want to be, you need to copy what he does every day.”
In that sense, young Cochrane is not daft. He knows the right and wrong habits to learn during these formative years of his career. He is also sufficiently switched on to appreciate that the aforementioned level of competition can only help him improve.
“I just want to play the same, if not more games for the first team. I know that will be a challenge because there are a few more midfielders signed. It’s heathy, it’s competition and you need to try and keep yourself in the team.
“If you’re training with players like Don, Arnaud and Naisy every day then you’re going to learn off them and develop as a player – but if you’re playing in the team and there is no competition then you won’t develop a fast as you could. It’s good and I’m enjoying it.
“There was probably a lack of midfielders last year and there were a few injuries and luckily enough that’s what got me my chance in the team. Hopefully this season I’ve worked hard enough and played well to keep my place in the team.
Lee, Bozanic, Burns and Edwards have wasted no time in imposing themselves at Hearts. Cochrane has noticed them signalling their intent, with Lee scoring a 25-yarder and a neat low finish in the 3-1 defeat of Thistle at the weekend.
“They are brilliant players who have come in,” says the teenager. “You saw on Sunday when Olly scored a wonder goal. It’s not going to be as easy as last season and if there are not as many injuries then it’s going to be harder to get a chance in the team. I’ll relish that challenge.
“Every new signing we’ve brought in has impressed me in training and hopefully I’ll have impressed them as well. It’s always good to impress but they’re all great lads into the bargain.”
Cochrane was relieved at simply being back in action against Thistle after seeing his pre-season campaign delayed slightly. He had to sit out last week’s friendly at Arbroath but is confident he is a more rounded player now than when he joined Hearts on professional terms just 12 months ago.
“I hadn’t played a pre-season game before Sunday because I had a head knock in training then I wasn’t feeling well,” he explains.
“The beach was the toughest running I’ve ever done in my life. The first few days was running big laps of the training pitches at Heriot Watt and the beach was just running up the sand dunes. I’ve not got very big legs so they didn’t cope well with the sand.
“I feel I’m developing and feel that I’m a lot stronger when I’m out there, so I need to keep at the gym this year and keep the fitness going.”
He will rightly be encouraged by comments from Levein on these pages stating that he remains very much a first-team player regardless of the hefty close-season influx. Having put a considerable amount of time and effort into honing this Riccarton academy graduate, it would be foolish for the Hearts management team to now cast him aside.
“It’s good to be recognised with what the manager is saying. For the manager to rate me highly and keep me in the squad is brilliant,” says Cochrane.
“I wasn’t expecting to play on Sunday but I got half an hour. You can see the quality the new guys have got and their work ethic. They work so hard and I’m trying to copy them and do what they do.”