Hearts accelerate summer training programme to get more youngsters into next season's first team
Wander through the entrance to Oriam Scotland’s sports complex, past the gym and along the corridor behind the indoor astrodome.
You arrive at Hearts’ training base. Behind the secure door there exists a hive of daily activity despite the first team being firmly in the middle of a close season. Riccarton hasn’t closed. In fact there is vital preparatory work taking place ahead of the club’s return to the Scottish Premiership.
One particular group of youngsters are training intensely to make an impact next season. Striker Euan Henderson, midfielders Connor Smith and Scott McGill, defender Cammy Logan and goalkeeper Harry Stone are undergoing gymwork and coaching sessions several times a week to accelerate their development.
Management invited them in throughout the summer with the carrot of senior game time next term if they are considered fit and ready. Henderson is the oldest at 20, the rest still 19. It is a priceless opportunity at a club where the lack of emerging youth players drew plenty criticism of late.
Stone is still expected to be loaned out to play regularly with Craig Gordon an immovable object between the first-team goalposts for now. The others know a spot in manager Robbie Neilson’s squad is there for the taking.
Don’t be a fringe player
Coaching staff are overseeing summer training sessions and experienced professionals, including Gordon, are also taking part to set an ideal example for the young protégés. Neilson told the Evening News that these measures are designed to get more youth academy graduates into Hearts’ side.
“We are conscious that Hearts is a club which should have young boys round about the first team,” he said. “Our job is to get them ready to be involved week in and week out. You don't want them coming in for three games and then disappearing for a year.
“We've brought these lads in over the summer to try and give them the best opportunity we can to stake a claim and be a first-team player at Hearts – not just a fringe player.
“They all wanted to come in and it's helped that we have first-team coaches in. Lee [McCulloch] and Gordon [Forrest] have been coming in, same with myself, and the sports scientists are there as well.
“We also have Craig Gordon, Liam Boyce and Aaron McEneff coming in for some training. Ross Stewart has been coming in. Craig Halkett has been in at times as well along with Gary Mackay-Steven and John Souttar. A lot of the senior ones are showing that example.
“It shows the young lads that, if you want to get to the level of a Craig Gordon or Liam Boyce, you can't take six weeks off in the summer. This is the period when you develop. It's been good for their fitness but also as an eye-opener for them. They're seeing what these senior players do. They don't take days off, they're always at it.
“The boys have got their running programmes to do at home but sometimes coming into the training ground just breaks it up for them because they get to do a football session. We are happy to make sure the facilities are there for them to do that.
“All the injured boys are still coming back like Stephen Kingsley and Josh Ginnelly, so it's a pretty busy place at the moment.”
The above will be a relative comfort to some fans concerned about how Hearts might fare in the Premiership. New signings will arrive to add more quality to a squad which won the Championship title comfortably despite some listless displays.
Neilson was questioned for not utilising the youthful energy at his disposal more often. He is taking steps to address the matter. “Younger players have to be ready to come into the team,” he insisted. “It's easy to say, 'put young ones in,' but the decision is two-fold: Are they ready to come in? And would it be more beneficial for them to go on loan?
“If they can get 15, 20 or 25 games with another club as opposed to one or two with us, then you need to look at it. We made decisions last year and some stayed with us, like Scott McGill, others went out to try and get game time.”
Hearts Under-18s are still playing league matches following an extended shutdown due to the Covid 19 pandemic. That prevents some younger teenagers joining their elders on the summer training programme.
Use this period
Of the group above, Henderson is closest to the status of first-team regular after 16 appearances and three goals last season. The others are very much on the periphery.
Logan headed to Cove Rangers on loan last season and was joined by Smith, who had been loaned to Arbroath earlier in the campaign. They found game time restricted as the Cove manager Paul Hartley pushed for promotion to the Championship via the play-offs.
“The group we have in just now are ones we want to try and develop through the summer. It's important they use this period,” added Neilson. “You can get them in the gym, build them up and get their fitness levels up.
“It means that they are in really good condition when they come back for pre-season training. A number of them are in three days a week and the rest of the boys are doing their own home programmes.
“We thought getting these younger ones in would give them the best chance to have a good pre-season. Our under-18s are still training and playing games so we would have brought some of them in as well.”