None of the young players who performed so well at Forfar on Saturday are likely to start Hearts’ first competitive game against Cove Rangers on Wednesday night. Experience was largely withheld from the club’s final pre-season friendly, which brought in a convincing 5-1 win at Station Park and some impressive displays from those involved.
The real action starts this week in the Betfred Cup, hence the absence of manager Craig Levein and assistant coach Austin MacPhee from Angus. Levein was in the Highlands assessing Inverness and Cove, while MacPhee watched Hearts’ other group opponents Raith Rovers and Cowdenbeath. Clearly, nothing is being left to chance in this Betfred Cup campaign.
In their absence, several youngsters staked their claim for a first-team spot. Hearts effectively fielded a reserve side against Forfar with coaches Jon Daly and Liam Fox in charge for the day. Bobby Burns was outstanding at left wing-back, midfielder Andy Irving’s left foot was a joy to watch in midfield, winger Jake Mulraney tortured Forfar right-back Ross Meechan throughout his 45 minute outing, and striker Rory Currie took a confidence boost from scoring twice as a substitute.
All in all, a decent afternoon’s work. Daly, Fox and reserve coach Andy Kirk may now need to work harder than ever trying to manage teenagers craving more game time than last season, but who may get less due to the size of Hearts’ first-team squad.
“That’s a good headache for the manager to have with such quality young players,” said Daly. “We’ve added to the first-team squad and the competition for places can only help us. A lot of the young lads played last year. Yes, they’re good enough, but they played through necessity a lot. Looking at the squad this year, they might have to be a bit more patient. If they’re putting in performances like Saturday, then it’s only a matter of time before they get opportunities to play.”
Ross Callachan scored a slightly fortuitous opening goal when his skewed shot bounced in off the post. Minutes later, Mulraney converted Irving’s cutback. Dario Zanatta put Hearts 3-0 ahead after the break with a header from Burns’ cross. Forfar striker John Baird reduced the deficit from the penalty spot before Currie converted a loose ball and then tapped home another Burns cross moments from the end.
Hearts dominated the match and could have won by a greater margin. Physical – sometimes late – challenges from Forfar players ensured this was a fair test for the youngsters from Edinburgh. They stood up to it, despite some occasionally growing visibly frustrated by the fouling.
“The younger boys have been in and around the first team and training with them, so it’s nice to see some of the stuff they’ve done being taken in,” added Daly. “Callachan got his goal from a goalkeeping error, but it came from putting balls in the box and making sure the midfield are up in case the ball comes out. The ball was headed clear and Ross was there to step in and get a shot away. We’ve worked on stuff like that.
“The last goal was really good, I thought. The ball was played into the second striker, then it was laid off, put wide and then crossed into the box and we score from it. Rory positioning for that was different class. It’s stuff the manager has been working on with the first team but you can see the younger ones have been listening in and putting into practice.”
Those who find themselves on the periphery of Levein’s senior team will at least find competitive action in the SPFL reserve league. Some will head out on loan. “The reserve league will probably be a bit better than the development league was. It gives it more of a competitive edge and makes games that bit tougher,” said Daly.
“It will ask more questions of them than the previous system did. If the boys aren’t playing in the first team then they will be able to get minutes in the reserves. There might be options for some of them to go on loan during the season.”