IT would be fair to say Jordan McGhee’s introduction to senior football has been ruthless. He is just 17 years of age, playing in a Hearts team fighting relegation against the backdrop of administration and with too few experienced colleagues to guide him. The defender is having to learn the hard way, yet he isn’t complaining.
McGhee now has ten first-team appearances to his name and is making an excellent job of masking his youth. His notable comfort in the Hearts defence this season is testimony to his maturity – physical, technical and emotional. He looks composed, assured and reliable playing mostly as a right-back in a defence with an average age of just 20.
These are testing times for everyone at Tynecastle and McGhee admits he is far from immune to the hardship. In his opinion, being the youngest member of the first-team squad grants him exemption from nothing. He doesn’t sleep much after defeats like last Saturday’s against St Johnstone and is constantly analysing his own performances on television looking for ways to improve his game.
He offers Hearts fans an apology for the current state of affairs, illustrating a willingness to take responsibility despite his tender years. Only one league point out of 24 has been garnered since McGhee himself headed the winning goal against Aberdeen that balmy summer’s day at Tynecastle in August. The intervening ten weeks have been tortuous, save for progress to the League Cup semi-finals at the expense of Raith Rovers, Queen of the South and Capital rivals Hibs.
Nonetheless, it would be wrong to assume McGhee is regretting any aspect of his promotion to Gary Locke’s first-team squad. Despite the low moments, he is gaining priceless experience at such a young age which has helped propel him into the Scotland Under-21 squad. A major part of the learning curve has been trying to show character under the most testing of circumstances. Hearts are 15 points adrift at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership and odds-on favourites to be relegated with more than a quarter of the campaign gone.
“Everyone in the dressing-room has character,” said McGhee. “We’ve been brought up through the youth teams to have that. After a bad game, you go again the next week and you bounce back. It’s just the same at first-team level.
“We’ll give it our best and if we go down, then we go down. As long as we’ve given our best for the fans and the club.
“It’s brilliant to have the fans behind us, they’re different class. It’s a difficult season and I can only apologise on behalf of the boys.
“Everyone is disappointed in the dressing room but we can only get our heads up for the Aberdeen game this weekend. The fans have been nothing short of magnificent and, if they stick with us, I’m sure we’ll turn this corner one day soon. We’ll prepare for Aberdeen as we do for every game. Obviously now we’re a wee bit adrift and we need to start getting fired up for more games.”
No longer is McGhee considered part of the under-20 squad at Hearts. His elevation through the Riccarton youth academy has been rapid and he is in the senior squad to stay.
“It’s brilliant playing at this level,” said McGhee. “It’s got lows like Saturday and it’s got highs like last Wednesday night at Easter Road. I just need to take it in my stride and try to improve with each game. That’s just football. There are lots of lows and highs and it’s about how you bounce back.
“There wasn’t very much to take out of Saturday’s game against St Johnstone, to be fair. It was just a disappointing afternoon and it just wasn’t our day.
“We didn’t really defend well and didn’t compete as much as I felt we did last week against Hibs. We weren’t on to first or second balls quick enough. I’m not sure what the reason was for that.”
He feels the biggest difference between youth and senior football is in the mind. “It’s more mental. After you lose you just need to get your head up and try to get on the ball for training on the Monday. Apart from that the football is the same, apart from it being more physical at first-team level than under-20s. They’re more switched on.
“There aren’t points at under-20 level but you still want to win. If you win at first-team level, you get bonuses. You don’t get that at youth level.”
The Scottish Premiership is a notoriously unforgiving place when things are going against you.
McGhee is finding that out for himself this season along with many other youth academy graduates tasked with steadying the Tynecastle ship during administration.
More experienced colleagues like Ryan Stevenson and Jamie Hamill have become pillars of strength for younger players like McGhee.
“All the boys are brilliant – Hamill, Ryan Stevenson, Danny Wilson, Dylan McGowan and the experienced ones help you through the games. When you’re doing well, they’ll tell you you’re doing well. If you need to improve then they’re telling you ‘come on’. They’ve been different class.
“[Showing resilience] is your job so you just need to get on with it. I watch the games back to see what I’ve done well and what I can improve on to make me a better player.”
He isn’t doing too badly so far. The season will be long and testing for every Hearts player, but young Jordan McGhee certainly looks up to the task.