At 16, and with just one Hearts appearance to his name, Chris Hamilton is preparing for the Toulon Tournament with Scotland Under-21s. He is the youngest member of Scot Gemmill’s squad and, at 5ft 7ins tall, is also the smallest despite being a centre-back. None of the above fazes him in the slightest.
Scotland coach Gemmill is taking Hamilton to the south of France to integrate him early at under-21 level. He has represented his country at under-16s and under-17s, but this is a significant step up. However, he talks like he will simply take it in his stride.
In fact, apart from checking and double-checking his date of birth, there is no other evidence that this is a teenage kid who should be at home studying for Higher exams. Hamilton is articulate, assured and confident beyond his years. Much like his on-field defending, for those who haven’t seen him play.
He is determined to savour the experience at an elevated international level. His only senior Hearts outing came in the final game of the season at Kilmarnock, when injuries and suspensions forced manager Craig Levein to promote several youth academy players. The exposure has done young Hamilton no harm at all. He very probably wouldn’t be part of this 20-man Scotland Under-21 squad alongside names like Oliver Burke had he not made that club breakthrough.
“It’s probably been a factor. I played under Scot before at younger age-groups with Scotland, so he knows me. I think he trusts me that I’ll give my best,” Hamilton told the Evening News. “He congratulated me on my Hearts debut and he knows I’ll be able to cope with it.
“I know what position I’m in here. I don’t expect to play at all but I want to make the most of the opportunity. I’m going away with some quality players and coaching staff. I want to learn from them. We’ve trained a couple of times and the standard is just a step up. I was up against [Celtic’s] Mikey Johnston the other day and he’s so quick.
“You need to think quicker with and without the ball. Luckily, Burke hasn’t played directly against me but you look at his pace and how high he can jump. He’s a step above everyone else and you can see he’s played at a high level.
“It all happened within five days, getting my Hearts debut and then getting the call to come along with the Under-21s. It doesn’t seem right and it hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s crazy. I thought the phonecall from the SFA was a wind-up.”
Twelve months ago Hamilton was at school learning algebraic equations before signing a professional contract with Hearts. The thirst for knowledge is still there, but it is now channelled solely towards developing his burgeoning football career.
“I was talking to my mum about it the other day. This time last year I was at home studying for my National Fives. I got a few As, a couple of Bs and a C. I’m not the smartest but I worked hard.
“I was nervous about coming into full-time football and being able to cope with training every day.
“I managed to nail down a position in the Hearts Under-20 team and even being captain wasn’t expected.
“I kept my head down and I’m getting the rewards now but I’ll be in the reserves next year, so I’ll need to work hard and see where it takes me.”
Scotland Under-21s play the first of three group matches on Sunday afternoon against Togo in Aubagne, followed by a meeting with hosts France in Salon-de-Provence on Wednesday night. Their last group game is against the Korean Republic in Fos-sur-Mer next Saturday afternoon. A place in the semi-finals is the reward for qualifying from the initial section phase.
Hamilton is aware his height counts against him at the moment when it comes to jostling for game time. By his own admission, he is effectively waiting to grow.
“I’ve been playing right-back in training games with the Under-21s. I feel most comfortable at centre-back because I’ve played there more,” he said.
“I’m aware I’m not the biggest and a typical centre-back is big, tall and aggressive. I don’t quite fit that.
“There’s nothing to say I won’t grow but if I played more at right-back and got used to it then I’m sure I would enjoy it. Right now, I feel more comfortable at centre-back.
“It’s easy to see I’m not the biggest. If I grow, great. If I don’t, I just have to work with what I’ve got. I work in the gym to get as big as I can but I can’t control how much I grow in height. If I stay this size then I just have to get used to what I’ve got. My parents aren’t tall, either, so I don’t think I will grow much more. I’ll just keep eating and drinking right so that if I do get a growth spurt then I make the most of it.”
He is a young man clearly willing to exhaust himself to make the most of his opportunities. Like his Hearts promotion, the chance to travel with Scotland Under-21s has come much earlier than he could have imagined. He has yet to complete a full year as a professional. “Watching Aaron Hughes and Christophe Berra at Hearts has been a big help. Coming away with Scotland, getting to see other professionals and trying to cope with them in training will be things I can take back to Hearts next season. I want to use them to my advantage and see what I can do. I’ll be learning things that I wouldn’t be learning sitting in my house or going to the gym by myself. If I play it would be a bonus but, if not, I’ll learn as much as I can from the training.”