Inside Riccarton: Are Hearts on the way to producing a prolific striker?

Teenage academy signings offer plenty hope

From left to right: Harry Gordon, Aidan Denholm, Harris Spratt, Michael Aitken and Mackenzie Kirk. Pic: David Mollison.
From left to right: Harry Gordon, Aidan Denholm, Harris Spratt, Michael Aitken and Mackenzie Kirk. Pic: David Mollison.

No-one need tell Hearts that they don’t produce enough prolific goalscorers. Hope is high that 16-year-old striker MacKenzie Kirk can buck the trend. He has a decent chance if his finishing ability is anything like father Andy’s.

Kirk is one of five Riccarton academy graduates who signed professional contracts this week. The others are midfielders Aidan Denholm and Harry Gordon, plus defender Michael Aitken – all 16 – and 17-year-old goalkeeper Harris Spratt.

Reliable strikers are like gold dust at youth level and Hearts coaches acknowledge they need to hone more of them. Not since the days of John Robertson and Scott Crabbe have the club produced a young predator who rippled nets with serious regularity.

Kirk is the latest to try his luck. Like his teenage colleagues, he isn’t short of endorsements from people who tracked his progress through the age-groups.

“Mackenzie is probably one of the best finishers I’ve seen coming through at Hearts for a while,” said Roger Arnott, Hearts’ academy manager, who offered an insight into all five youngsters.

“He’s got the ability to score goals from everywhere, outside and inside the box. He strikes a great ball.

“You need players who can score goals and that’s something we maybe haven’t produced enough of down the years – somebody who can actually go on from the youth side, get into the first team and put the ball in the net regularly.

“I’m hopeful he can be one of those players. Physically, he is a bit of a late developer and has a lot of work to do in that regard, but we will help him.”

Kirk has a useful mentor in his dad, who recently moved into a new job coaching Hearts women. Andy Kirk arrived at Tynecastle Park from Glentoran in 1999 and became a fans’ favourite in attack, helping the club move on from the Robertson-Crabbe era.

However, Kirk Jnr isn’t the only one with a natural scoring instinct out of the new recruits. Denholm has already trained and played in bounce matches for the Hearts first team under manager Robbie Neilson. He often finds the net from out wide or the No.10 position.

“I’m delighted for Aidan because he developed slower and had to play down an age-group for a couple of years. His attitude has been first-class and he works so hard,” explained Arnott.

“He is an intelligent kid who has always had to fight because he hasn’t always been the cream of the crop or physically the best. He has had to learn other ways.

“When Robbie had the under-18 group in, Aidan was one of the first ones he wanted to have a look at. His attitude and willingness to go and get the ball and show composure stood out.

“He is another one who finishes well. He scores a lot of goals from the wide areas and is very consistent. He can play in a number of positions.”

Riccarton staff are similarly excited about the potential of Gordon. He operates as a central midfielder with the ability and stamina to carry out just about any task in that department.

“Harry is a box-to-box midfielder,” said Arnott. “He will go and press and harass opponents and when he gets the ball he can play. He then makes forward runs to get beyond the strikers as well.

“He can definitely do both sides of the game, regardless of whether he is playing in a two-man central midfield or in a three.”

Aitken is a central defender with a modern approach to football which should stand him in good stead. His technical ability and strength are his strongest assets. Hearts expect him to grow over the next couple of years in order to push for a senior breakthrough.

“He is composed on the ball and strong in the air. Michael likes to play out from the back and is comfortable with the ball at his feet like a modern-day centre-half,” said Arnott.

“He is another late developer who physically has a lot of growing still to do. He is a good, solid defender and one we will definitely be patient with.”

Patience will also be required with goalkeeper Spratt. He is a year younger than 18-year-old Harry Stone, who is considered to be Hearts’ future first-team No.1.

Mixing with the already-established first-team keepers like Craig Gordon, Zdenek Zlamal and Ross Stewart on a daily basis can only benefit the newcomer.

“Harris joined us at under-15 level and has done well,” stated Arnott. “He’s improved a lot under [goalkeeping coach] Paul Gallacher’s tuition. He still has work to do, particularly with Harry Stone in front of him.

“He is another one with a great attitude and we are looking forward to seeing how full-time football develops him. Working with Craig Gordon and Harry every day will definitely bring him on.”

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