Jack Hamilton faces a fight to remain Hearts’ first-choice goalkeeper this summer.
Sunday’s final home game of the season against Aberdeen will be the 23-year-old’s 44th game of his first season as No.1 at Tynecastle. He doesn’t take his position for granted, though. Far from it.
Hamilton acknowledges that he must prove himself all over again during pre-season training to ensure he keeps his place. He may be one of Scotland’s promising young keepers who became a regular in the international squad over the last 12 months, but that goes for nothing.
Hearts have Viktor Noring as Hamilton’s understudy but the Swede has yet to feature competitively since joining the Edinburgh club last July. Hamilton has been an ever-present, taking his total number of Hearts appearances over the 50 mark. He is adamant there is still work to do, however.
“Coming to the end of the season, every game is like a cup final. I want to be the No.1 for next season so I need to build on every game,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“I think that works for anybody. If you’re not doing it when you go back in for pre-season then the manager isn’t going to play you. There’s always somebody there who will be ready to come in and take your place. You need to make sure you keep it.”
Despite Hearts’ collective inconsistency, Hamilton is nearing the end of the best season of his burgeoning career so far.
“It’s hard with recent results but, from a personal point of view, this season has definitely been all positive,” he continued. “I’ve played over 40 games as Hearts No.1 now and hopefully I can keep building on that. It’s been a learning curve, I’ve learned so much over the last year. I just want to continue it into next season.
“Mentally, it’s been challenging. It’s not as easy as just turning up and playing football. The pressure you have on you to get results because you’re at such a big club is huge. Dealing with that has been a massive learing curve. I think I’ve done alright with that.
“I’ve learned about how to make certain situations easier for myself as a goalkeeper, but you’re learning and trying to build on every game. Gall [Paul Gallacher, Hearts’ goalkeeping coach] has been brilliant. After every game, we go through the video and he shows you what you could’ve done better. He also shows you the positives, which is important because there’s no point looking at negatives only. You need to build on the positives.”
Every week is a positive for Hamilton as he lives out his dream of keeping goal at Tynecastle. Ask him his biggest highlight and his reply is steadfast.
“To be honest, pulling on the Hearts jersey every week and going out to play in front of 16,000 people is fantastic. You can’t buy that. It’s something you train all your life to do and this is where I want to be. I want to remain the Hearts No.1.”
He is equally definite when prompted for his biggest negative from the campaign. “Losing in the derby. That’s massive,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “Being knocked out of the cup by your biggest rivals. We know how much it means to the fans and everybody involved at the club. It means so much to us players as well. To go out there and lose was definitely one of the sore points of the season.”
Hearts’ mid-season change of manager didn’t affect Hamilton as Ian Cathro replaced Robbie Neilson. “The manager has let me get on with it and given me coaching points in games. There is stuff he wants from his goalkeeper but it’s all similar stuff to Robbie. It was Robbie who gave me this chance and I owe him a lot for that and Cathro for keeping me in as well. That’s given me a good bit of confidence.”
Hamilton sees no reason be daunted by the visit of Aberdeen. Derek McInnes’ side will clinch second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership if they win at Tynecastle. They have already appeared in the League Cup final and have a Scottish Cup final to look forward to later this month. They represent the clear benchmark for every club in Scotland outwith Celtic.
“I think so. Everybody knows how good Aberdeen are and they’ve shown that by being comfortable in second place,” said the goalkeeper. “That’s what we’ve got to put ourselves up against. We’re more than capable of going out there and getting a result. We have a good enough squad to go and take points, so we just have to go and prove ourselves again at the weekend.
“We know they’re coming down here looking to secure second place off the back of a defeat last week against St Johnstone. They’re going to be right up for it. They’re going to come at us but we’re just as good a team as them and we need to match them. Fair play to them. They’ve had a great season. We need to concentrate on ourselves and hopefully things fall into place.
“Europe is still achieveable for us but we’re just concentrating on ourselves. There’s no point thinking about this team getting beat here or there or if we win this. It’s irrelevant just now. We need to win as many games as we can, get as many points on the board as we can, and then whatever St Johnstone do, they will do.”
Saints are six points ahead of Hearts in the Europa League race. Playing the final match in front of Tynecastle’s ageing main stand may give the home players some inspiration this weekend.
“It will be emotional. I’ve been here for a number of years now and I’ve watched plenty games from the stand. The atmosphere is tremendous so it will be a big loss. Looking at the positives, the plans for the new stand are incredible. An extra few thousand fans coming to the games every week will be a big positive for us.”