JACK HAMILTON’S giant goalkeeping gloves have seized two priceless opportunities in the last four months: He is becoming an established member of the Scotland squad and is now the undisputed first-choice at club level with Hearts.
For Robbie Neilson, head coach at Tynecastle, Hamilton’s response in both roles vindicates the decision to make him Hearts No.1 and promote him from Scotland Under-21s to the senior squad. Neilson made the first call, national coach Gordon Strachan the latter. Both men have been rewarded for their respective bravery with the 22-year-old.
“There is a definite confidence in him. When he first came back for pre-season and we told him he was going to be number one, there was always that trepidation about going into the unknown,” admitted Neilson, who parted ways with last season’s first-choice keeper Neil Alexander in May.
“I think Jack’s performances have shown he has settled into the role well and he has a bright future here. He knows the quality he has already, that’s why I put him in.
“When you put a young goalkeeper in you are never 100 per cent sure what you are going to get because you go from them playing from in front of 200 people in the under-20s to 18,000 at Tynecastle. He’s handled it really well and I have been pleased with him.”
Strangely, Hamilton was called into the Scotland squad for the first time in May before Neilson had decided to install him as Hearts No.1. He travelled for friendlies against Italy and France and was retained last month when Strachan announced his squad for the opening World Cup qualifier against Malta.
Hamilton is in the squad again for next month’s qualifiers against Lithuania and Slovakia. He remains very much third choice behind Celtic’s Craig Gordon and David Marshall of Hull City.
“It’s great for him to be with the national squad. I spoke to him the last time and I know he really enjoyed it with the standards the guys set there,” continued Neilson.
“You see Craig Gordon and the way he conducts himself, the way he trains as well, it’s great for Jack to see.”
It may be a long time off, but Hamilton has the opportunity to progress at international level and become the future Scotland goalkeeper. His development has been steady through several age levels within the Riccarton youth academy but he is unlikely to be jumping ahead of Gordon or Marshall any time soon.
Neilson advised him to consolidate his place in Strachan’s group. “He’s still got a long way to go. He’s managed to get into the squad and he has managed to stay in the squad, which is important. His form will dictate where he goes from there,” he continued.
“I don’t want him to think too far ahead, he needs to think about Motherwell on Friday night, that’s the most important thing for him. How that goes from there will dictate how he does in the Scotland set-up.
“He’s still a young keeper, there are a lot of players here who are all young and still have a career ahead of them. He has shown great potential, we trust him and we hope he will go on to great things. He’s got to keep working hard.”
With Hamilton, that is a given. His work ethic and desire to improve are what have taken him from the Hearts youth teams to the full Scotland squad. He is maturing into a goalkeeper with an exciting future and shoulders pressure well at any level.
“He’s just the same, he’s carefree and he’s desperate to do well and he works hard,” revealed Neilson. “I don’t think he will change, I think he’ll mature as a person.
“It brings a pressure when you give someone that responsibility of being number one but it is a pressure he has handled well.
“He has to look after himself properly now. He’s a role model to all the other keepers at the club. He understands that and hopefully he will grow into that as well.”
Being an academy graduate gives him a grounded outlook and also helps him appreciate his recent promotions. For any goalkeeper at Riccarton, aged nine to 19, the ultimate goal is the No.1 spot at first-team level. Hamilton identified that target early and set about achieving his goal.
“He’s comfortable in the environment, he has been here for a long time so he knows everyone. The players like him, he has a good rapport and the fans know him,” said Neilson.
“So when we put him in as number one, he wasn’t coming in cold from a different culture. I think that helped. Ultimately he’s a good goalkeeper, that’s what has helped him.”
The patience required to wait behind other more senior keepers like Marian Kello, Jamie MacDonald and Alexander demonstrated his determination to get there by hook or by crook.
He will need the same approach now at international level, with Gordon and Marshall considerably more experienced. Allan McGregor could also make a return to the Scotland squad once he recovers from a back injury.
“Jack has had to wait a long time for his opportunities, he has had to wait through quite a few keepers to get his chance. But he has worked hard and he has managed to take it,” explained Neilson.