Hearts prepare Riccarton teens for first-team promotion as they chase Scottish Youth Cup glory

Life doesn’t get much better for an aspiring teenage footballer. Forget all the cheeky Nandos munching and FIFA success on Xbox, Tynecastle Park tonight is the absolute highlight for those involved.

Thursday, 24th February 2022, 7:00 am
Updated Thursday, 24th February 2022, 9:11 am

Hearts Under-18s meet Inverness Caledonian Thistle Under-18s in the Scottish Youth Cup semi-final. The incentive for the winner is a final against Hibs or Rangers, potentially at Hampden Park.

The prospect of a mini Edinburgh derby won’t be lost on the Hearts squad although the priority is simply reaching the youth football season's climax.

Coach Steven Naismith, a former winner of this tournament with Kilmarnock, knows the stakes are high. He took charge in December and his job today is to keep the young protégés calm and maintain a sense of normality. Seeing the bigger picture helps.

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 25: Hearts coach Steven Naismith during a cinch Premiership match between Heart of Midlothian and Livingston at Tynecastle park, on September 25, 2021, in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

“When you take over, there is a bigger focus,” he told the Evening News. “For me, the biggest thing in my head is: ‘What would happen if these lads were to go into a first-team group?’ That is the biggest goal. You have to be able to go in there.

“I know how cutting it can be because I’ve been there myself. I’m quite good at thinking back to when I was that age. They might only get one, two, three chances to make an impression in the first-team environment and they need to be ready to take them.

“We’ve been punished badly in some games but I would rather they were able to handle the ball in some high-pressure match situations. It’s the only way to learn. They made mistakes at the start and took a few big defeats, but since then the lads have embraced it.

“It’s no fluke that they are in this semi-final. They deserve it. Now we need to see how far they can go with it.”

Hearts' Finlay Pollock may be offered a route to more regular first-team football in League One with East Fife among the clubs keen on his signature ahead of next week's loan deadline day (Edinburgh Evening News)

Playing the same system as Robbie Neilson’s first team is designed to ensure an easier transition for those who do graduate to senior level. “We play 3-4-3 as well so it mirrors the first team. They need to have an understanding of the system and shape in case they’re drafted in,” said Naismith.

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“They also need to know right from wrong, like when you can and can’t lose the ball.

“I split the pitch into three third for them: In the top third, you go after the ball when you lose it and don’t really care about the structure. In the middle third, the nearest player will go to the ball but the rest need to maintain some form of defensive shape. In the defensive third, you just can’t take any risks.

“So it’s trying to get the players into that mindset so you don’t have a young right-back trying to dink the ball over a winger’s foot to attack then losing possession. Growing up with, ‘unlucky, well done, next time.’ There is no next time. That just can’t happen because it could cost us a goal.

“It’s hard at youth level to instil that because the competition is less. You want to have confidence to try things but it’s a big jump from under-16s to under-18s to first team. It’s not about technique or deep-down tactics.

“Are you understanding the professional that does so much more reading on this now? You hear: ‘We were unlucky the day, we got beat 3-1 but ah scored a great goal.’ It’s not about that. It’s about preparing to win and the competitive side of it [in the first team].”

Indications are that the young Riccarton academy graduates are listening. Hearts have yet to lose a goal in the Youth Cup, beating East Kilbride 6-0, Inverurie Loco Works 2-0 and Dundee 2-0 to reach the last four.

Inverness are equally miserly in defence. Their cup run involves a 2-0 defeat of Kilmarnock and then successive 1-0 victories against Morton and Auchinleck Talbot. Something must give in Gorgie this evening in front of an audience permitted free entry.

“There is nothing better than getting through the rounds in the cup,” said Naismith. “The feeling of getting to the final and winning the final is similar to winning a cup at senior level. At that time, it’s the most important game in your career.

“The relief and buzz from winning it doesn't change from when you’re 16 or 17 to when you win the Scottish Cup as an established first-team player.

“It’s a massive incentive because it’s a cup final at stake. In previous years it’s been at Hampden. If our lads can thrive at Tynecastle in the semi, then the carrot is they could be playing at Hampden in a cup final. A lot of full-time professionals have gone through their careers and never done that. It’s all there for them and I keep telling them to enjoy it.”

The most recognisable name in the Hearts Under-18 squad is midfielder Finlay Pollock. He has six first-team appearances to his name. Goalkeeper Harry Stone won’t be involved but others such as forward Mackenzie Kirk, the versatile Callum Flatman and defender Mike Aitken should play.

“Finlay can play but Harry Stone is too old,” explained Naismith. “We could play a goalie a year down but we feel it’s more important for Harry to develop. Before I took over I was like: ‘It needs to be competitive, man. We need to win.’ But you have to deal with the cards you’re dealt.

“You can have three really good prospects taken away with the first team. Then you get a coupe of injuries and you need to draft in younger boys who aren’t fully ready. That can happen in the league, although the Youth Cup is the more important one for winning.

“We won’t heavily rely on anyone. Finlay has been with the first team, Callum Flatman was injured, so was Mackenzie Kirk and Mike Aitken. We’ve won games with six or seven 16-year-olds playing – like Bobby McLuckie, Mackenzie Ross, Ewan Simpson. They’re all still at school.”

That leads to the conversation digressing slightly onto the subject of performance schools. Hearts run their own through Balerno High School and Naismith has made some subtle changes.

“I’ve been intrigued by the whole Performance School. What are they getting? They get extra hours out of class but if you are in third or fourth year at school, the next step for you is the under-18s.

“So these guys need contact time with the under-18s because that’s where they are going. We’ve changed it so that when they are getting football at school, they now come down and train with our under-18s. That’s two full-time sessions a week which gets them used to the environment, demands and having responsibility round about the first team.

“That’s why these guys can now comfortably play with the 18s. It’s all been really good and they’re all contributing.”

Some of those 16-year-old schoolboys may find themselves on the pitch at Tynecastle tonight. The ones who play the game and not the occasion are likely to fare best.

“My view is that not much changes,” stated Naismith. “Yes, we’re playing at Tynecastle but we’re not going for pre-match meals so nothing changes. It’s a big game because there is a cup final at the end of it but we still need to do what we do every week.

“They will obviously have a buzz playing at Tynie. The boys all go to the first-team games so they see all the preparation, the new stand and the facilities. That’s the reward for them now. They get to walk into Tynie for their game.

“I clearly remember the excitement of playing in a stadium for the reserves at Kilmarnock as a kid, even if it was empty. It was amazing. That will be what these guys feel.”

Free entry for all supporters at Hearts v Inverness CT Scottish Youth Cup semi-final this Thursday (7pm kick-off at Tynecastle).

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