Hearts striker Makenzie Kirk heads off on international duty with traditional home values
The Kirk household is preparing to bid son Makenzie farewell as he embarks on another career highlight at the end of a breakthrough season.
The teenage Hearts striker is named in Northern Ireland’s Under-19 squad for friendlies in Malta. That follows a maiden call-up back in March and senior club debut against Ross County in April. Father Andy, himself a former Tynecastle goalscorer, is “immensely proud” as a Belfast-born Ulsterman.
Kirk Jnr was born in Edinburgh a few months before his Dad’s Hearts career ended and joined Hearts from Rangers The Scottish Football Association haven’t shown any interest in calling him up so far but the Irish FA feel the lankly 18-year-old has potential.
Family agree, although the Kirks are determined to nurture with traditional values underpinned by desire and ambition. “He is definitely hungry. Makenzie wants to be a footballer and he’s quite clear about that,” explains Andy, the current Brechin City manager who enjoyed five years as a player and four as a coach in Gorgie.
“We sat down with him at the outset to talk about all the time, effort and energy that would be needed. As parents, we’ve put in a lot of time helping him to get there and making sure he’s got everything he needs.
“We said: ‘If you are going to have a go at this and you really want to do it, you’ve been offered a full-time contract with Hearts, and through experience of mine you need to dedicate everything you have to try and achieve it.’
“You know yourself, football is a difficult industry to succeed in. To get to the top and become a professional isn’t easy. We made Makenzie well aware of that and he is dedicated to it. I’m sure in the changing room and around his mates he’s a different person to what I see.
“He is up and away to training in the morning and you need that attitude, enthusiasm and desire. That’s half the battle.”
An exit from Rangers taught young Kirk resilience as a 13-year-old before his development accelerated at Riccarton. He has an ideal mentor at home. “You could see from a young age Makenzie had some natural talent. I just try to give him wee bits of advice without putting too much pressure on him,” says his father.
“He has to find his own way in the game and he’s a totally different player to me. We’ve supported him, taking him back and forward to training, making sure he’s well prepared and giving some advice after games.
“Youngsters don’t always want to listen when it’s your Dad talking but if a coach tells him then it’s different. He’s had good coaching at Rangers and Hearts and he is still developing. He still has a long way to go but he seems to be going in the right direction.”
The owner of 11 full Northern Ireland caps, Andy knows the honour of representing his country. “To be called up at any international level is a great achievement. Northern Ireland sniffed around Makenzie when he was about 15. He was going through a growth spurt and just wasn’t ready for that level physically or in terms of maturity.
“They got in touch again recently and came across. They watched him score twice against Celtic for Hearts Under-18s. They took him to the Football Federations Cup [in Spain in March] and the feedback from that was that they were realy happy.
“I know myself because he phoned me every day. After games, he is quite upbeat when he feels good and he’s done well. It was a very positive trip for him. Hopefully it’s the same again this time. It’s okay doing well on one trip but you need to keep backing that up. I’ve explained that he needs to take every opportunity.”
It is no different at club level, where competition for first-team game time is about to intensify. Hearts are preparing for domestic and European commitments next season and will sign several new players in order to cope.
Kirk Snr hopes the couple of minutes of action his son got in the Highlands whets the appetite to push for more. “He’s had a taste and he’s grateful the club gave him his debut. We told him at the start of the season that it would be fantastic if he could get in the squad a couple of times.
“Things like that can light a wee fire inside you, making you even hungrier. I was pleased he got onto the pitch even only for a few minutes. It’s having the belief, like after being away with Northern Ireland, thinking: ‘Here, I’m good enough to play at that level.’ That can push you on.”
So, should we expect a cheeky loan bid from Brechin in August if young Kirk isn’t part of Robbie Neilson’s plans? His old man laughs. “If he gets the opportunity to go out and play, he’ll score goals,” he says.
“I’ve told him he needs to go in for pre-season really fit. He’s trying to impress, he has ability and he can score goals. He’s still developing and starting to fill into his body so he’s getting stronger and quicker.
“If he comes back for pre-season in good condition, then whatever path Hearts choose for him he needs to work hard at it – whether that’s loan or not.”
Wherever he goes, he must stress the correct spelling of that first name. There is no ‘C’, however tempting it might be to insert one. “We spelt it that way, I don’t know why, but we liked it. He has been spelled M-A-C-K, he’s been spelled M-C-K, but it’s definitely M-A-K,” says Andy.
The Northern Ireland Under-19 team-sheet will get it right in Malta. Might the Hearts one include the same name next season? Much hinges on young Makenzie’s summer endeavours.