In Kaunas two years ago, Robbie Muirhead scored a goal which propelled his name into the same bracket as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar.
All four players were nominated for UEFA’s Goal of the Season for 2014/15. Messi eventually won, but Muirhead’s 45-yard screamer for Scotland Under-19s went viral and hinted at a precocious talent.
Since then, very little. The highlight of the young forward’s career remains that belter in a 1-1 draw with Norway in the European Under-19 Championship Elite Round. After a £150,000 move from Kilmarnock to Dundee United, and a subsequent loan at Partick Thistle, he now has the chance of a restart at Hearts. If Robbie Neilson can harness Muirhead’s explosive firepower, he will have snared a gem in the free transfer market.
Ricky Sbragia was the Scotland Under-19 coach on the day Muirhead announced himself to the world in Lithuania. Cutting inside from the right flank, he found himself not far outside the centre circle in the opposition half. He proceeded to dispatch an unstoppable dipping shot from fully 45 yards which roared past the Norwegian goalkeeper into the top corner.
The goal was posted online by the Scottish Football Association and the footage quickly spread. Muirhead would join superstars including Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Kevin De Bruyne, Aaron Ramsay and Erik Lamela on UEFA’s Goal of the Season shortlist. He came ninth, still a remarkable feat for a previously unknown Scottish teenager.
“We were hoping he wasn’t going to shoot,” laughed Sbragia. “We were all thinking: ‘He’s not going to shoot from 45 yards, is he?’ But he did. He comes inside and you’re expecting him to link up with somebody. Then you can just see the foot going back. We thought the distance was just too great but, my God, it was a hell of a strike.
“Everybody else was probably thinking the same as us, that he would link up and then maybe send the ball out wide. Then he’s just hit this shot and you’re thinking: ‘Oh my God.’ The keeper wouldn’t have saved it. It was really unpredictable and I think that’s Robbie in general. He’s got unpredictability. He’s got belief in what he can do.
“I know he’s scored some really good goals at club level, but that one for the Under-19s beats everything. It even beats some of the things I’ve seen in the game. What a shot it was, to think he could get that power to beat the keeper from that distance.
“You’d normally need to go another 20 levels up to start talking about Messi and Ronaldo and people like that, but it just shows. You can do something in football, it gets on social media and you get recognised because of it. It was just a phenomenal goal. We were at the far right of the pitch watching it and I thought: ‘Christ, this is sailing in.’”
Such magic is undoubtedly what attracted Hearts. Neilson is the sort of coach who likes the challenge of finding a rough diamond and trying to polish it up. He sees the 20-year-old as a no-risk signing on a one-year deal after United released him early from his contract. Sbragia believes they are a perfect fit.
“Sometimes the club suits you and you suit the club, but I actually think that experience [at Tannadice] will help Robbie’s mental strength. That will be good for Hearts,” said Sbragia. “They’re seeing something in him, how he can come into their team and what he can bring. There’s one thing for sure, Robbie has got firepower.
“Hearts are bringing in younger players, like John Souttar. Robbie has good ability and can play across the front three. He can play as a striker, out wide or just off the striker. He played wide right for us with Scotland Under-19s. He’s got good technique and he’s a good size. He’s still learning, and that’s the big thing. There’s a lot of development still to come from Robbie. It’s a good move for him and for Hearts.
“He comes out with some fantastic shots and he’s got some good link-up play. He had some decent games at Kilmarnock but, since moving to Dundee United, he’s not had that same exposure. You look at that time and think it’s probably been a bit of a barren spell for him. He went on loan to Partick Thistle, but this is a great opportunity to come back and make his mark again.”
Importantly, Muirhead appears to have the correct mindset to succeed at Riccarton. “He’s a really quiet lad who mixes well,” continued Sbragia. “He’s not lively in the sense that, you get some who are over the top and really bubbly. Robbie’s quite stable. He thinks a lot about the game, he takes things in and he’s willing to learn.
“He was a great example of what we wanted with the young Scotland squads. He was quite prepared to listen and quite prepared, in some case, not to be involved. He might not have been in the starting line-up but if you explained it to him, he was fine with that. I think he liked coming with the squad.
“I don’t think he’s ever phased by things. He deals with the game and gets on with it. He’s moved from Kilmarnock to Dundee United and now to Hearts. Mentally, this will make him stronger. He got a lot of exposure at Kilmarnock, was in and out the first team there, then he went to United and it didn’t quite work for him. For what reason, I don’t know. This is a new opportunity for him.”