After 27 years, £1.3million in fundraising and even paying player transfer fees, the Hearts Youth Development Committee is no more. The brainchild of former Tynecastle manager Joe Jordan is being wound up whilst the club fast track academy kids like never before.
Youth produce carries increasing value in Gorgie, where ten teenagers have played in Hearts’ first team this season. The Riccarton academy provides state-of-the-art facilities within the Oriam Scotland complex, and manager Craig Levein opened Hearts’ own football performance school three miles away at Balerno High last October. All of which are funded by the club, rendering HYDC obsolete.
It is a sad consequence for the youth fundraising arm established by a group of fans and local businessmen at Jordan’s request in 1991. It evolved into a multi-use cash facility with around 400 monthly subscribers helping to buy everything from floodlights to hotel rooms at youth tournaments.
HYDC’s important role in the development of Hearts youngsters was precisely what Jordan wanted when he began a three-year stint as manager at Tynecastle in 1990. “As soon as I got there, I realised something like that was needed,” he told the Evening News. “I didn’t go to Hearts thinking I was only going to be there a couple of years. I was there to do a job, improve the players and improve the club by using my experience.
“I’d been at Manchester United and seen the players who came through there. AC Milan was the same. They had schools throughout different suburbs of Milan and they trained at night to associate the boys with the club. In my second year there, some of those players got their chance in the team. Some of them went on to win everything.”
It was the early 1980s. The untouchable Franco Baresi had already emerged and midfielder Alberigo Evani was breaking through. Between them they would collect nine Serie A title medals and five European Cup winner’s gongs.
Jordan wanted to generate the same evolution in Edinburgh on a smaller scale. He enlisted local knowledge from Pilmar Smith – then vice-chairman of Hearts – and Alex Jones to help start the group which would eventually become HYDC.
“When I was managing a club I wanted to know the structure,” explained Jordan. “That’s what I asked at Hearts. I asked about the scouting system, what we covered, how do we compete with the Celtics, the Rangers and the Hibs. We tried to get boys associated with the club right away.
“We needed help and these people helped us. It wasn’t just the financial side. It was the involvement of people whose heart and spirit are with the club. That’s vital. You can get money from different quarters but you need people who are dedicated. That’s what the people on the youth committee were. They lived in the Edinburgh area, they knew they city and had contacts. It was for their club so they had a purpose.
“The objective was to have local Edinburgh lads associated with the Hearts, to come through a youth structure. You had dedicated fans who had time to put in to generate finances and maintain an association with, I was going to say a community, but we’re talking about a capital city here.
“At all clubs at whatever level, there’s nothing better than young lads emerging. That applies to Hearts, Barcelona and much smaller clubs. The guys who have sat on the committee for the last 27 years, I’m sure that was their vision as well.
“There’s nothing better sitting in the stand on a Saturday afternoon watching lads who have developed through the Hearts academy. That’s the way I saw it and that’s how I saw it when I was a kid as well.”
He couldn’t have envisaged what would ensue. Craig Gordon, Christophe Berra, Gary Locke, Allan Johnston, Robbie Neilson, Lee Wallace, Jason Holt, Callum Paterson, Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker are just some of the home-grown players honed with HYDC’s help.
Most of them left Gorgie for six-figure fees, some seven figures. Berra and Wallace brought in £2.3m and £1.5m respectively. Gordon’s £9m transfer to Sunderland in 2007 was a British record for a goalkeeper.
Money raised by HYDC through Burns Suppers, charity matches, golf days and monthly prize draws also paid for a whole range of different facilities and equipment. Defibrillators for every Hearts youth team, video analysis software, cameras, portable floodlights and trips to the Milk Cup and Foyle Cup were all funded through the committee.
There were other equally useful, if less publicised, contributions. When Hearts signed 17-year-old Kevin McHattie from Dunfermline in 2010, HYDC stumped up the £10,000 transfer fee. The club’s Eastern European hierarchy at the time claimed finances did not stretch to paying for kids.
Thankfully for Hearts fans, those days are gone. The new structure installed by owner Ann Budge is supplemented by around £1.5m a year from supporters through Foundation of Hearts. That means HYDC’s fundraising is no longer needed. Chairman Calum Robertson and his committee of Jones, Euan Nicolson, Barrie Nicolson, Ron MacNeill and Roger Arnott [Hearts academy manager] will disband at the end of the season.
Hearing the news prompts a sigh from Jordan. He is placated by the fact the current Hearts hierarchy have youth development as a key priority. “I’m pleased the reins are being taken by someone else with the same principles. That’s good and I can understand that,” he said.
“Hopefully Hearts continue getting rewards from it because there has to be an identity. Nobody appreciates that more than the supporters. Please pass on my regards to the committee members from my time when it was taking off. And tell them thanks for what they’ve done for the club. It’s priceless.”
Robertson and his colleagues agree now is the right time to step down. That doesn’t make the emotions easy to digest. “The way Hearts are structured now means HYDC isn’t needed so much,” said Robertson. “Under previous regimes we were a nice-to-have-fund. Because the club is so fully behind youth development now, the money is coming from within. The need for HYDC isn’t as paramount as it was in the past.
“It’s really difficult to wind it up. It’s taken a lot of heart-searching to appreciate that this is the right thing to do and the right time to do it. Alex Jones, our treasurer, has been on the committee since day one. He was one of the founding members.
“I think HYDC was ahead of its time. What people have been doing with the monthly draw was 20 years ahead of the Foundation. Fans were contributing to us and the money was going to the club. It didn’t start out as the animal it became, obviously, but there was nothing else like it around at the time.”
Robertson handed Hearts a cheque for £51,000 at the club’s Player of the Year ceremony on Sunday. It represented the remaining HYDC funds. Come June, the committee will no longer exist.
However, any future Hearts owners or chairpersons who don’t afford youth development the correct priority should beware. HYDC would reform in the appropriate heartbeat if necessary.
“If I was asked the question under those circumstances I would think about it seriously,” said Robertson. “I’m a great believer in youth football, not just at Hearts. I feel developing youth players in Scotland would develop our game more.
“Hearts have shown that using youth brings a bit of excitement and people recognise youth is the way forward. If I was asked to get HYDC back together I’d certainly consider it. Because I’ve supported Hearts all my days, it would be very hard to say no.”