THEORIES that Hearts’ predicament is harming the development of their young players are strongly rejected by winger David Smith.
He is one of the kids in question and insists every academy pupil fast-tracked to senior status this season is relishing his opportunity and benefiting from it.
The 20-year-old is adamant no youngster is suffering as Hearts continue to struggle in the cut-throat Scottish Premiership, where they are 14 points adrift at the bottom with a young team and toiling for results. They are also unable to sign anyone while in administration.
Manager Gary Locke named only five substitutes for Saturday’s trip to Celtic Park rather than expose teenagers fresh out of school to the ruthlessness of Scottish football. That may again be the case against Kilmarnock on Boxing Day as injuries have devasted Locke’s already threadbare squad.
Smith is a member of an entire under-20 team promoted over the last 18 months and now tasked with avoiding relegation this season following Hearts’ financial collapse. Billy and Adam King, Jamie Walker, Kevin McHattie, Callum Tapping, Callum Paterson, Brad McKay, Jason Holt, Dale Carrick, Gary Oliver and Sam Nicholson are all boys having to do men’s jobs.
To their credit, not one has complained. Smith explained that is because they are grateful for the chance to play in the first team, regardless of the circumstances. He stressed every one of the Riccarton academy graduates will learn more by playing senior football than they would in the under-20s.
“I wouldn’t say it’s hindering us because this is giving all of us experience of first-team football,” he said. “The full team is young, apart from Jamie Hamill, Jamie MacDonald and Ryan Stevenson. People maybe say there isn’t enough experience around us, but that’s why we’re learning.
“The gaffer and Billy Brown are helping us and teaching us, so I wouldn’t say this is damaging our development. We’d all still rather be in the first team right now than playing in the under-20s.
“It’s not a great situation for the club to be in but, at the end of the day, if we get out of this position, it’s going to be one of the best things you could ever do. We’ll all be heroes for Hearts.
“At the start of the season it was always going to be a massive task. Now we’re at Christmas time and it’s still a massive task for us to make up the points difference. We will still fight. We’ll keep going.
“Everybody in the team is young and it’s great being a first-team player at Hearts. When you’re talking to people and they mention you’re bottom of the league, you tend to just brush it off. We are a young side but obviously that’s not an excuse.
“The crowd will demand things and it’s always in the back of your head that we’re bottom of the league. When you cross that white line, you just need to go for it.”
There is much to be admired about the spirit of the youngsters, who now enter a crucial four-game period which will have a major bearing on Hearts’ hopes of staying in the league. After Kilmarnock, matches against St Mirren, Hibs and Partick Thistle will likely go a long way to determining the Edinburgh club’s fate.
Hearts enter this phase with a degree of confidence after Saturday’s performance at Celtic Park, where they lost 2-0 after a 7-0 reverse against Celtic at Tynecastle just three weeks previously.
Smith revealed why he was as eager as anyone to avoid another heavy defeat by the league champions.
“Being from Cumbernauld, a lot of my mates are Celtic fans,” he said. “I was getting a bit of abuse the night Celtic beat us 7-0 and all through that week. It was good to go there and prove we could hold our own.
“After losing heavily against them, we had to rectify that and get a bit of pride back. We worked on a few things at training and we sat off Celtic a bit at Parkhead. Even after they scored, we were still in the game and we nearly nicked a point in the last minute. That game will give us a lot of confidence for these massive games coming up.
“As the gaffer said on Saturday, we were going to Parkhead and there was no pressure at all on us. Obviously it’s at the back of your head that we need to win pretty much every game. There is pressure from the gaffer but outside the club a lot of people have written us off. There isn’t massive pressure on us.
“That will probably change now because we’re playing teams who are relatively close to us in the league over the next four to five games. We need to take points from them. It’s these games we need to concentrate on and make sure we get points on the board.”
“Football isn’t just about going forward, you need to defend. The Celtic full-backs were basically playing as wingers so for me, playing left midfield, you had to defend against them. We worked on that during the week with the gaffer and Billy Brown. We’ve learned that we can’t get opened up like we did in the 7-0 defeat, so that’s a bit of progress.
“I learned a lot at Raith but I’m still learning because I’m still only 20. It’s my first year in the first team at Hearts so I’m learning every day.
“Personally, I feel I’ve improved my crossing and my set-pieces. I think we’re all improving as a team and we’re all still young.