Harsh lessons have been learned and Jordan McGhee feels a stronger player for learning them.
A debut season in the Hearts first team ended in relegation last year but the teenage defender is more resilient and adaptable as a result.
He can cope with being dropped or suffering a poor result because he now has the wherewithal to fight back. As recently as last week, he was hauled off at half-time at Alloa but is still a serious contender to start tomorrow’s match against Dumbarton at Tynecastle.
Mental strength is a crucial part of modern football and McGhee, despite being only 18, built much of his amid the trauma of last season. Administration and a 15-point deduction consigned Hearts to relegation with a team dominated by young, inexperienced youth academy graduates.
Many of them are still around and, like McGhee, have grown and developed as a result. If last season was tough and mentally draining, those players are now reaping the rewards of their perseverance. Hearts top the Championship sitting nine points ahead of Rangers and McGhee is relishing the prosperity at his place of work.
“Last season, I feel I learned more tough lessons,” he explained in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I gave away a penalty in the Hibs game and there were a few other things. You become a better player for it and I’m stronger mentally because of it. A lot of the younger players are flourishing now because they are stronger and I think that’s partly why we’re doing well this season.
“I feel more like I’m a first-team player this season instead of just a squad player. I was doing my bit here and there last season but now I feel I’m more involved with the first team. It’s part and parcel of being a youngster that sometimes you’ll play and sometimes you’ll be left out. It’s about how you deal with it mentally because it happens to everyone in football. You need to bounce back.
“It’s tough when you’re not in the squad. I felt that a few weeks ago when I was dropped for the Cowdenbeath game. It’s tough mentally on you so you need to stay strong and stay positive about everything. For me, this season has been great. I’ve played a lot of games so far and long may it continue.”
McGhee was replaced by Callum Paterson after 45 minutes last week because Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, wanted more attacking from the right-back area. McGhee is naturally a centre-back but started ahead of Paterson at right-back on Alloa’s astroturf pitch.
He got forward to score from five yards in the 3-0 win over Queen of the South the previous week. “I think that was a one-off. A nosebleed,” he laughed.
Tomorrow, he will get a chance in his favoured central role if Neilson, as expected, decides to rest his captain, Danny Wilson. A minor hamstring strain is troubling the skipper and Neilson is considering leaving him out to ensure he is fully fit for the Edinburgh derby with Hibs at Easter Road next weekend.
Having played 90 minutes in the 0-0 with Dumbarton last month, McGhee knows what to expect tomorrow should he play. “Last time we played them they kind of shut up shop,” he said. “They were really tight at the back and the game was really congested. We tried to get the ball into wide areas and get deliveries into the box but it didn’t really work. We’ve been working on how to break that down.
“I thought the pitch was fine down there and it was a good day as well. It was a normal game, we just didn’t turn up and play the way we’re capable of playing. It will be a lot different this weekend when we’re at home. The grass will be cut to what we prefer and all the fans will be right behind us. Hopefully that will play a big part and we can get a result.
“It’s hard when teams sit in against you because we aren’t really used to that. Last season was more end-to-end football. It’s just something you need to adapt to if you want to get points on the board.”
Hearts have adapted to life in Scottish football’s second tier with consummate ease so far. Nothing is being taken for granted at Riccarton even though they have a sizeable lead over second-placed Rangers in mid-October and have won all but one of their league matches. McGhee puts the early-season success down to nothing other than sheer endeavour on the training field.
“The training is harder but it’s a lot better,” he explained. “We do double and triple sessions a lot of days. At the time, you feel tired but it’s worth it at the end. There are more experienced players on the pitch now compared to last season so it’s easy to go into the team and play.”
It is also far less stressful, particularly for a younger player, to step into a side brimming with confidence and winning almost every week. McGhee feels Hearts deserve to be leading the chasing pack in the Championship and stressed they won’t pay any attention to Rangers or any other team until the end of the campaign.
“It’s a good feeling being top of the league. It’s something we’ve really worked for but, at the end of the day, it’s only a start. There are 27 games left and it’s all about consistency. At the moment we’re doing really well. We’ve gone through the first round of games unbeaten so the aim is to keep it up and hopefully finish near the top at the end of the season.
“We all knew it would be tough this season, trying to adapt to a new league and the way the other teams play. We always knew we had a good quality squad and I think we more than deserve to be where we are now given the hard work we’ve put in.
“We’re just concentrating on ourselves and trying to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We want the results to keep coming in and, at the end of the season, then we can start worrying about where Rangers are.”
The maturity shines through despite McGhee’s status as one of the youngest members of the Hearts first-team squad.
He has grown considerably from the raw kid who suffered from losing all too often last year. The strength gained has been well used. Tomorrow he might well put it to the test in his favoured centre-back role.