Harry Stone reveals Hearts' plan for the promising goalkeeper going into season 2022/23
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The Hearts goalkeeper had seemingly already been anointed the eventual successor to Craig Gordon, whenever the Scotland No.1 decides to call time on his career, before he’d even played a minute of football above Scottish League Two level, such was the impressiveness of a 2020/21 spell with Albion Rovers.
Naturally, Robbie Neilson and the club’s management staff wanted the player tested at a higher level. Two Championship clubs showed serious interests and, in July of last year, Partick Thistle won the race for his services.
After playing in two Premier Sports Cup group games, Stone impressed enough to win the starting job ahead of Jamie Sneddon, who had been at Firhill for four years after moving from Cowdenbeath, but had yet to fully make himself the undisputed No.1.
Things began well enough. The 20-year-old, still a teenager at the time, stood out with a couple of remarkable saves in a 3-0 away thumping of Dunfermline Athletic in early August. However, the following week he made two costly errors, one of which was particularly bad, in a 3-1 loss at Arbroath. Either through opting for more experience and therefore a safer pair of hands, or just wanting to withdraw the youngster before things got worse and his confidence eroded, manager Ian McCall made a change the following week with Sneddon returning in goal. Stone then sat on the bench and watched as his team-mate kept eight consecutive clean sheets, an all-time club record. Stone wouldn’t play again.
"It wasn't wasted time because it happens to everyone throughout their career, when you find yourself out of the team and have to work to get back in,” he said of the experience. “Every loan is for learning and I definitely still learned something from that loan.
"Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up. I play a few games, I come out of the team and Jamie Sneddon comes in and sets a club record for the number of consecutive clean sheets. I was training hard on the pitch every week, but when he's doing that you've just got to hold your hands up. I was recalled and I went back out on loan, which was a bit better for me.”
It was back to Cliftonhill with Albion Rovers for the second half of the term. With Stone eager just to play regular first-team football again, saying yes to the reunion was a no-brainer. "I know the club, I know everyone there really well and I know the environment. So after doing really well there the season before it was a place where I thought I could go back and get some experience,” he said.
This coming campaign promises to be quite different, and not just for the Scotland youth international. Instead of needing the loan market to get game-time for their best and brightest young players, Hearts now have the option of keeping them in-house and exposing them to the rigours of Lowland League football after a Hearts B team was approved by the member clubs to join Celtic and Rangers, whose youngsters competed in the division last term.
There is still a chance Stone could be sent out on loan instead, while there’s always the possibility he could impress enough in pre-season to beat out Ross Stewart as the deputy to Gordon. For the meantime, though, the plan is for him to remain at Hearts and play regularly for the B team.
“I’ve had a couple of chats with Robbie. There's nothing set in stone, but it looks like I'll be staying at Hearts and playing in the B team every week,” he said in the aftermath of playing 90 minutes in a friendly victory over Spartans at Ainslie Park. “Staying here, staying within the squad, training every day, that's sort of invaluable, especially with Craig Gordon here as well to learn from. Hopefully with a few European trips I'll get to travel on them as well.”
There's also the increased possibility of getting a first-team chance by remaining in Edinburgh, where he’d still be eligible to be called upon for the first-team, instead of going out on a loan where the risk of bad timing could cost him an opportunity. "Yeah, it happened last season with Covid cases,” Stone said. “It can happen in the span of one night where you're asked to get called up to the bench. There's the possibility of injuries as well, so remaining at the club can be a good thing for me.”
Staying at Hearts also means he can continue to learn from the man he’s been tipped to take the gloves from one day in the future. It’s hard to find a better role model than the reigning SFWA Player of the Year and Scotland No.1, who seems to be going from strength to strength in the twilight of his illustrious career.
"When I first heard he was signing I was delighted,” said Stone. “You know, the opportunity to learn from the best goalkeeper in Scotland, arguably the UK. He and Ross Stewart are always keeping track of me and helping me every day, giving little coaching tips and points on lifestyle. They're both a big help and so is Paul Gallacher, the goalkeeping coach, as well. He always keeps me right.
"When you've got Craig Gordon ahead of you there's not much you can do expect keep the head down and hope for a chance or two will come if I stay at the club. I'm just concentrating on my football and we'll see what happens. The pathway is there for me, which is a good thing."