The introduction of under-20 teams from Premiership clubs into the Irn-Bru Cup has sparked debate across Scottish football, with many questioning their value in the competition.
Hearts striker Rory Currie is adamant he has benefited from playing in it. The 19-year-old’s goal away to Championship outfit St Mirren on Saturday proved to be merely a consolation in a 3-1 defeat, but the ruthlessness he showed to execute his finish won’t have gone unnoticed by new manager Craig Levein, who watched on from the Paisley club’s main stand alongside first-team coaches Jon Daly and Liam Fox, with chairwoman Ann Budge also an interested spectator.
The youngster battled manfully on his own upfront against two imposing centre halves in Gregor Buchanan and Jack Baird on an afternoon in which the wee Jambos were certainly not bullied by their stronger, more physical opponents.
Andy Kirk’s young side, which included several 16-year-olds, gave glimpses of the talent prospering at the club’s Riccarton training base – with Levein claiming Hearts will soon be producing the best young players in Scottish football at his unveiling as boss last week.
“It was good but it was a hard game with it being a 20s side coming up against a first team,” said Currie, who featured nine times at first-team level last season.
“They were a lot stronger and a lot more experienced than us, but I thought we handled the game alright. The pace of the game was a lot more sharp and intense [than what we’re used to] and alongside that the strength of the players – they are were a lot bigger than us.
“I’m used to playing against some big centre halves having played some first-team games, but you’ve just got to adapt to it and try and win stuff in the air and hold the ball up. It was a good experience coming up against that.”
Currie, who has featured alongside 20s team-mates Jamie Brandon, Lewis Moore and Harry Cochrane in the first-team so far this season, hopes to make a bigger impact in the Scottish Premiership this campaign if given the chance, while backing his 20s team-mates to make the step up with him.
With Levein having overseen the club’s academy for the past three years in his role as director of dootball, Currie reckons that can only strengthen their chances of featuring under Hearts’ new boss.
He continued: “Hopefully a few of them can step up [to the first team]. Some of them train with the first team regularly and I think quite a few of us could adapt to first-team football quite quickly.
“We still need to impress him [Craig Levein] every game but it is good that he has seen the majority of us playing for a year or two. It helps trying to push forward because if you’ve been doing good in the previous years then he knows what you’re capable of.
“He speaks to us all after games and tells us what we could be doing better and what we are doing good, it helps.”
It was two former Hearts strikers in Gavin Reilly and John Sutton who proved to be the difference on the afternoon for Jack Ross’ Buddies.
Reilly, eager to impress against his former club, planted a fine left-footed strike into the top corner after just eight minutes past Kelby Mason.
Hearts continued to push forward without fear, as they had done before the opener, with Moore continually causing problems for the hosts with his pace down the left.
It was captain Angus Beith who gave home goalkeeper Ross Stewart something to think about midway through the first half, however. His dipping strike from the edge of the box had Stewart worried, but he got his fingertips on it to push over.
Reilly should have doubled Saints’ lead before the break after Mason could only palm out Dale Hilson’s effort, but blazed over with the goal gaping.
He made no mistake when offered a second chance three minutes after the interval, firing low into the bottom corner on the turn after collecting Stephen McGinn’s pass.
Kirk introduced Irish striker Aidan Keena to provide Currie with some support in attack and the duo combined to good effect with ten minutes remaining. Keena’s cross was met by Currie four yards out and he volleyed high into the roof of the net.
Any notion of a comeback was soon dispelled as Reilly’s hanging ball to the front post found Sutton, who could not miss with a header.
Kirk certainly felt it was a worthwhile exercise for his players “It was a great experience for our boys,” he said. “I thought they gave a really good account of themselves. To be honest, after the game we walked in and there was a few of them with their heads down and obviously disappointed. That’s a good thing, as I said to them when I went in, having a look round the dressing room told a wee story as in we had a chance.”
St Mirren: Ross Stewart, Eckersley, Buchanan, Baird, Demetriou, McShane (Sutton 70), McGinn, Hilson (R Stewart 54), O’Keefe (Kirkpatrick 60), Smith, Reilly.
Hearts: Mason, Brandon, Sandison, Gadja, Hamilton, Petkov (Cochrane 88), Morrison, Beith, Currie, Paton (Keena 49), Moore.