Neil Alexander is relishing the chance to finally scratch a career-long itch.
Ever since he was a starry-eyed kid idolising the likes of Henry Smith, John Robertson and Craig Levein in the late 80s, the Balerno boy has been desperate to play at Tynecastle.
As he turned 36 earlier this year, the goalkeeper was starting to resign himself to the fact that the closest he would get to playing on the turf of his boyhood club was warming up Allan McGregor in his role as the Rangers No.2.
Then Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, got in touch and offered him the chance to come home to Edinburgh after a season warming the bench at Crystal Palace. The offer of a player-coach role at the club he loves was too good to consider turning down.
“As a boy, you always want to play for the club you supported, but I was starting think it might never happen,” he told the Evening News. “When the phonecall came, I was delighted. I didn’t have to think twice. It’s fantastic, I’m just proud to be here.
“I never had a season ticket as a boy because I had boys’ club or school games on a Saturday, but whenever I could I’d turn up and pay at the gate. I remember going to Tynecastle as a Rangers player and just actually being on the pitch for the warm-up was fantastic because as a fan I’d only ever been in the stand or on the old terracing. It’ll be very special to finally play at Tynecastle as a Hearts player.
“I went to Tynecastle as much as I could as a boy. John Robertson was my hero. I used to get the Hearts strip with No.11 on my back every Christmas. I was fortunate enough to play with John [at Livingston] and know him off the pitch as well. That was something really special for me. It’s the same now with having Craig Levein here.
“When I was playing in goals with the goalie strip in the park or the back garden as a boy, I was always Henry Smith. I met Henry a few times; it’s just fantastic for me to be around the club now.”
Since leaving Scotland 13 years ago, when Cardiff City took him from Livingston, Alexander has carved out an impressive career for himself. He made more than 200 appearances for Cardiff City, was capped by Scotland and then, after a brief spell at Ipswich Town, enjoyed a fruitful five years at Rangers, where he played in a Uefa Cup final and eventually replaced McGregor as the No.1.
Even last season, when he left Rangers at the ripe old age of 35, he landed on his feet with a move to the English Premier League, where he provided back-up to Palace No.1 Julian Speroni. Despite his veteran status and all that he has accomplished in the game, there is no hint of Alexander being ready to wind down. Although he has additional goalkeeping coach responsibilities to contend with, he still feels in peak condition and wants to add his name to an impressive line of Hearts goalkeepers that includes the likes of Jim Cruickshank, Smith, Gilles Rousset, Antti Niemi, Craig Gordon, Marian Kello and Jamie MacDonald.
“Hearts have had a lot of very good goalkeepers over the years so I’ve got a lot to live up to,” said Alexander. “I’ve got high standards for myself anyway, so hopefully I can continue that and in the future be remembered as one of those great Hearts keepers. I can’t just come in here and stroll around – there’s work to be done on and off the pitch. Hopefully I can do enough to become the No.1 and be a good goalie coach here.
“Even though I didn’t really play last season, I still kept myself sharp. I was training every Monday to Friday and because you’re not playing, you do that bit extra in training. I’ve always looked after myself and ate well throughout my career, and I feel that’s helped me get to where I am just now. I’ve come back in good condition – I feel great.”
Alexander seems genuinely excited about embarking on the latest chapter in his career. He has spent the past few days working closely with young Jack Hamilton, the only other keeper currently on Hearts’ books, and getting to grips with his new role. “We’ve got a fantastic set-up here with Robbie Neilson, Craig Levein and Stevie Crawford. It’s a great backroom staff and there’s exciting times ahead,” he said. “Craig was my Scotland manager as well, but to get to know him on a daily basis and see how he does things behind the scenes is a great learning curve for me.
“I’ve got to deal with agents and scouts, seeing young goalies into the club and planning sessions. It’s a lot of organisation and a lot of hours, but I’m enjoying it. It’s something new for me and hopefully it bodes me well for a future in coaching.
“I’ve had some fantastic goalkeeping coaches in my career. I had Jim Stewart with Rangers and Scotland and George Wood at Cardiff and Crystal Palace – they were two excellent goalkeeping coaches. I’ve been lucky enough to learn a lot from them. I take a lot of what they’ve taught me over the last 15 years or so and I’ll try and bring in a bit of what I like to do in training, so I’ll mix it all together and hopefully Jack Hamilton will enjoy the training this year.
“From the first day I came in, I started coaching and working with Jack right away. He’s a fantastic prospect and if I can help him through my experience and give him tips here and there, hopefully in the next year or two, he can be pushing for the No.1 jersey at Hearts.”
Supporters will be hoping Alexander’s performances are of a similar calibre to the last Hearts goalkeeper to come out of Balerno High School. “Craig Gordon lived in Currie, but he went to Balerno High, the same as me,” he explained. “We had a lot of the same teachers and know a lot of the same people. It’s unbelievable for two Scotland goalkeepers to come out of the one high school.”
It is two other familiar faces whom Alexander is a tad worried about, namely Rangers’ returning front two of Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd. Alexander played with both of the strikers at Ibrox and knows the fact they are heading back to Glasgow could spell trouble for Hearts and the rest of the Championship promotion hopefuls. “Obviously Rangers were going to be strong even without them. They always were favourites but they are two fantastic signings,” said Alexander. “When they were with the club before they linked up very well and had a great partnership. I think they could score a bundle of goals if they click again this season so it’s going to be tough for us, especially in the opening game [at Ibrox].
“But promotion is the key for us. Obviously we’re looking to promotion, whether that’s in first place or second place – that’s the objective. Hopefully we’re going to have a squad good enough to get us there.
“It’s fantastic [to be playing Rangers on the opening day], it’s something to look forward to. It gives you an extra inspiration for pre-season, I want to be in that first XI at Ibrox and run out there. When things are getting hard in pre-season, I can just think of that and it will push me on. It gives you a lift and I think that will be for everyone. It’s a good motivation for everybody for pre-season.”