Hearts U18 boss John Rankin on the 'lost year', excitement for pre-season and developing intelligent footballers
Hearts Under-18s complete their mini-season today with a trip to face Hamilton Accies bringing an end to what has been a surreal, quirky and challenging 14 months.
Led by manager John Rankin the club’s youngsters will have played 11 games in the space of 49 days.
Yet, the intense sprint of Tuesday, Friday, Tuesday, Friday is nothing compared to the challenges these teenagers have faced during the pandemic. Routine, schedule, the ability to develop in a professional environment have all been impacted.
They have been tested and been required take on more responsibility aided by club staff, including optional home programmes, with some coming back in “unbelievable condition”.
But an issue which is widely noted and goes beyond just Hearts, is that a group of footballers have missed a year in their development.
The lost year
"Our boys came back and they were ready to go," Rankin told the Evening News. It was always going to be a tough schedule because they had not played for a long period of time.
“At that age the kids are growing, developing, becoming mature. They are going through different things in their life and having overcome probably the hardest year in their parents life never mind their own.
"You see the 2004s just now. I feel for them.
“They have basically lost a year of physical development, acceleration development and football development.
"Not only that but the analysis side of it where you can actually show them clips because you are not allowed in a classroom. I really feel for that group.
"They’ve lost their first year of full-time football. That’s throughout Scotland. They’ve got a lot to catch up on."
He added: “Not only that, the thing that they are drastically missing this year is discipline.
“I don’t think they have a discipline of each day when they get out of bed, when they come in to training, what they eat, what they drink. They don’t have that. That’s a big part of a footballer.
"The way I was brought up as a footballer that was instilled in me at a young age.”
‘Educated me in a different way’
If anything positive can be taken from a stop-start year, it can be the learning experience, as it has been for Rankin, who admitted to seeing the game in a different light.
“It actually allowed me to look outwith the football environment because we only see the kids in here and what they are doing whether it is ball-based, gym-based, running-based, physical-based,” he said.
"These kids all grow up in a different environment. And it’s their home environment you then see them, they are either thriving or struggling to get their head around what’s going on.
"You’ve got to take that into account when you are speaking to the person. We always think of everything as footballers but realistically what’s going on in their life when they are not here?
"It educated me in a different way. Aye, they all want to be footballers but all their situations are different.
"That became a big thing for me, realising what each individual needed and how to tick their boxes and also making yourself available to them if they ever needed to call.
"My phone goes at strange, strange times. But that’s part and parcel of my job. You just have to be there for them. They are young kids trying to find their way in life, not just football.”
Excitement for pre-season
The enthusiasm and passion in the voice of Rankin, a self-confessed “adrenaline junkie” who runs – not jogs – between 5km and 10km each day, shone through as he spoke of getting the players back for pre-season on June 24.
It is easy to envisage the coach crossing off each day on the calendar until then.
The squad will be made up of a core of 12, including a quartet who recently signed new deals, supplemented by players from younger groups, including those born in 2007.
"This summer the 2004s and 2005s will come into the building together,” Rankin said. “It excites me as they are coming in at the same time and to see who adapts to the environment you’ve created here.
“If anything, I’m hoping to make them hungrier. They’ve not had the environment of coming into the building at 8.30 in the morning, getting their breakfast, doing jobs, getting ready to train, getting their lunch, going into the gym, having a protein shake, training again. They’ve not had that so that excites me.
"Who’s going to adapt to that really quickly, who’s going to struggle? Who’s going to catch the eye of the manager and end up training with the first team? Who’s going to make their debut?
"The passion that I have for their development and how they’ll kick on this summer is great. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Developing intelligent footballers
Rankin has been encouraged by what he has witnessed since the return to action, the team having started strongly. Injuries, of which there are currently 13, forced the manager’s hand.
"We’ve actually got 2006s playing just now, 14-year-olds playing at Under-18 level,” he said.
"It’s tough, as in physically they are not ready, but are they ready ability wise? Can we get them to move the ball quicker? Can we get them into areas where they can receive the ball and makes passes, take the contact side out of it and we’re trying to make them more intelligent footballers. That’s been really, really interesting.
“They’ve developed really well. The first two or three games when you ask them to play at this level becomes hard for them because they are not used to the physicality of it but when you take that out of it and they start to pick up spaces where people can’t near.
"Hopefully when they do get to that age we are not expecting them to be an under-18 player, we’re expecting then to be a first-team player or squad player because they have had that development.”