DESPITE 13 first-team appearances for Hearts, Dale Carrick is still slightly startled by some aspects of senior football. He has played in a raucous atmosphere at Anfield in the Europa League, but arrives looking nervous for his first-ever media interview. It quickly becomes apparent that humility is one of the 19-year-old’s most endearing traits.
A striker who goes by the nickname of “Speedy”, Carrick has flitted in and out of the Hearts team this season and hopes to play from the start at some point before the campaign ends. He admits he never expected to be anywhere near the senior squad so early in his career and had prepared himself for a season of under-20 football. In that sense, he should feel satisfied.
His promotion, although earlier than expected, has not been premature. Carrick’s natural pace offers a different option in attack to the likes of John Sutton and Michael Ngoo. Injuries have denied him a sustained run in the side so far, but he featured as a substitute against Aberdeen last weekend in what was only his second SPL outing since Christmas.
Ross County are the opponents tomorrow at Tynecastle and he is expected to begin on the bench once more. You won’t find him complaining, for this season has been the ultimate whirlwind for a local Edinburgh lad who has already exceeded his own expectations.
“Personally, I didn’t think I’d be playing in the first team this year. I thought I would just be having another year with the under-20s and hopefully progress that way,” explained Carrick.
“Towards the end of pre-season, I got taken along for the friendly against Dunfermline. I was put into the squad and since then I’ve been in and out.
“I’ve played against Liverpool home and away and that was unreal. I’d never have thought I could be involved in a game like that, especially down at Anfield. I couldn’t sleep that night after the game. I was up till about four o’clock in the morning thinking: ‘Did I actually do that?’
“It has been a dream. I would never have thought that, in my second year as an under-19 player, I’d be in the first team getting games. It’s been fantastic. Because I’m quite young, getting the experience of playing in the SPL and getting that opportunity with Hearts has been really helpful. Most teams are not really promoting their youth as much as Hearts have been lately.”
That is a case in point. Almost a full team of Carrick’s academy friends are with him in the first-team dressing-room, which makes for good camaraderie. They know him as “Speedy”and nothing else. The story behind his monicker indicates how baby names back in 1994 had taken a notable swing towards modernisation. “It was an old coach of mine at under-13 level, Stevie McGowan, who gave me the nickname,” said Carrick. “There were four Dales in our team at that time so we all got a nickname and mine was Speedy. As time went on, most of the boys thought my actual name was Speedy. They didn’t realise my real name was Dale.”
That youth coach couldn’t outdo Darren Murray, the Hearts under-20 coach, when it came to leaving a lasting impression on Carrick. “Darren Murray is one of the main people to influence me. He has given me the drive to push on and become a better player so that, when you do reach the first team, you can go up to another level and handle it. There is a big step up between the youth team and the first team. It’s a quicker game and there are more talented players – it’s a very big jump.
“There have been ups and downs for me this year. Sometimes I’ve coped with it and other times I’ve just not been on my game, really, and not performing as well as I should be. The feedback I’ve had from the management and coaches has been good, though. They’ve been saying: ‘Keep working hard and eventually you’ll get there.’ I can still play for the under-20s which helps me get game time and keeps my fitness up if I’m not involved with the first team.”
Pressure on young players must be handled carefully, although Carrick is one of those who demands certain standards from himself.
He may be content and even surprised to be playing first-team football at Hearts, but that does not mean he will rest on any laurels. “I think there’s pressure no matter what,” he continued. “The pressure is the same for every game. I put pressure on myself to perform for the team and do as well as I can. I just try to do well in each game and hopefully get a result. Then I move on and forget about it and look to the next week.
“It’s good pressure because we have so many young boys all fighting for positions in the team. There is a good intensity between the boys to get the chance to play in the first team, and it’s good for a bit of banter as well. It felt great to get back on the pitch on Saturday and get some game time. I wanted to influence the game a bit more and maybe sneak a goal, but it was good just to be involved. I’m hoping to start at some point between now and the end of the season; I’ll need to see if I get a chance.”
With that, he heaves a sigh of relief. Interview over. Now back to the allegedly easier task of impressing manager Gary Locke.