JAMIE MACDONALD knows cash-strapped Hearts will come under the spotlight this season – but the goalkeeper reckons the young Tynecastle squad will have no problem dealing with the scrutiny.
Gary Locke’s side lost 1-0 to a Liverpool select at The Oval, home of Glentoran, on Saturday as they completed their pre-season programme ahead of this weekend’s SPFL Premiership kick-off.
MacDonald believes the trip to Belfast has also helped the Tynecastle kids come into their own off the pitch.
With no game last Friday, the players had a few hours off and took in a tour of Belfast before some of the younger members provided after-dinner entertainment, steadying their nerves before standing up to sing a song in front of the senior pros as part of a light-hearted squad initiation.
And MacDonald believes such banter is helping the youngsters feel part of the senior side.
“All of the young boys coming in have stepped up and it is good to see them all getting a game and getting integrated into the first-team mindset,” said MacDonald. “A good thing for them is that there are a lot of youngsters about the squad so it has probably been slightly easier for them to integrate.
“I remember when I stepped into the first team. I was among a massive group of experienced professionals and it could be quite intimidating at times.
“There are obviously still a few experienced boys here to help some of the younger lads but I think they have integrated quite well. We’ve got a good team spirit going now, wee trips like Belfast or a couple of days away together really help. The other night we had a few of the younger lads up singing. It was their first trip away and a bit of an initiation and a bit of fun. It brings everyone closer.
“We had Sam Nicholson and Jordan McGhee doing Broken Strings by James Morrison. I would have given them a good seven out of ten for their duet as it was a pretty solid effort.
“Wee Gary Oliver and Adam King sang Stand By Me and that was not bad – I would have given them a five! You could see they were nervous and their knees were shaking a bit but it was all good banter for them.”
Saturday’s match itself was played out in sweltering heat and with a clear financial gulf between the two outfits. With Liverpool’s first-team squad on tour in Asia, their team in Belfast was packed with under-21s but they still managed to include Joao Teixeira, bought for £1 million from Sporting Lisbon, in midfield.
Hearts skipper Danny Wilson was on from the start for the second game in a row as he continues to build towards the season opener against St Johnstone this Sunday.
The Jambos had an early chance when Jamie Hamill picked out Ryan Stevenson and he found Callum Paterson, who was unlucky to see his shot saved by Liverpool goalkeeper Ryan Fulton.
The Reds looked strong down the left-hand side and Jakob Sokolick carved out a chance with a diagonal ball, which was cut back by Adam Morgan. However, Wilson managed to poke it away before Jack Dunn could connect.
Teixeira really was a touch of class and made sure that Hamill, Scott Robinson and Callum Tapping – booked for a challenge on the Portuguese midfielder late in the first half – were given a real workout.
Liverpool came close when a clearance from Dylan McGowan bounced awkwardly and fell kindly for Kris Peterson just a yard or two out but his header was well saved by MacDonald. They had another chance a couple of minutes later when Dan Trickett-Smith’s corner was headed just wide by the imposing Stephen Sama.
But Hearts had a number of chances of their own and they almost broke the deadlock ten minutes before the break when McGowan teed up Stevenson for a snapshot on the turn that took a deflection on its way past the upright.
Hamill, who looked sharp throughout, almost produced a cracking goal in 54 minutes when he unleashed a thundering effort that flew just a couple of inches over Fulton’s bar.
MacDonald did well at the other end to get down quickly to his right to block Kristoffer Petersen’s shot from a tight angle and Hearts were fortunate from the resulting corner not to fall behind when Nacho Ortiz’s corner seemed to he headed home by Trickett-Smith, only for the referee’s assistant to rule that it hadn’t crossed the line.
However, Liverpool finally got the goal they had been pressing for in the 68th minute and it was brilliantly worked. Nacho floated the ball in and Petersen chested it down, turned and drilled his effort beyond MacDonald.
The Hearts keeper admitted he was disappointed not to keep a clean sheet in Hearts’ final friendly match but reckons he has seen a huge improvement in performance from the young squad over the course of their six pre-season games.
He said: “I think overall, pre-season has gone quite well. Obviously, we got a bit of a doing in the first game, against Dinamo Bucharest, but that was only a week into our pre-season and they were playing their fourth or fifth game. Since then I have seen an improvement, we have been pretty solid. I was disappointed, though, not to keep a clean sheet because we were going for four in a row.”
Liverpool: Fulton, Sama, Roddan, Rafa, Sokolick (Jones 62), Rossiter, Petersen, Teixeira, Morgan (Nacho 46), Smith, Dunn. Subs: Mersin, Brannigan, Maguire, Hussey.
Hearts: MacDonald; McGowan, McKay, Wilson, McHattie (Naysmith 51); Tapping, Hamill (Holt 62), Robinson, Walker; Paterson, Stevenson. Subs: Holt, B King, Smith, A King, Nicholson, Oliver, McGhee, Ridgers.
Referee: A Black.