Jack Hamilton is nearing the end of a character-building first season as Hearts’ No.1.
By his own admission, there have been “ups and downs” along the way, but the fact that, with just five games to play, the Riccarton academy graduate remains his team’s only ever-present – playing every minute of their 42 competitive matches since last June – is an indicator of the high esteem in which he is regarded by Hearts’ management.
Although viewed by those who had worked closely with him as a Scotland No.1 of the future, it was seen by many supporters as a gamble when the Tynecastle side opted last summer to place their faith in a 22-year-old rookie who had only ten previous appearances for the club and a total of 18 starts from short loan stints with Stenhousemuir, East Fife, East Stirling and Forfar Athletic under his belt.
Hamilton believes being pitched in at the deep end has accelerated his development significantly.
“Personally, it’s been great,” he told the Evening News as he reflected on an intense ten months between the sticks.
“It’s been a challenge because I’m at a massive club. There have been highs and there have been lows but in every single game I’m learning new things and getting better as a goalkeeper. Things haven’t always been great, but to have a full season as Hearts’ No. 1 is going to stand me in good stead, especially at my age. At the start of the season, I thought I was going to be out on loan but the manager [Robbie Neilson] gave me a chance and I feel like I’ve done alright. It’s been massive for me.” In a division where the majority of the goalkeepers used this season are 29 or older, Hamilton is comfortably the youngest outright No.1. Frankie Woodman, the 20-year-old who has started Kilmarnock’s last 13 games since arriving on loan from Newcastle, Remi Matthews, the 23-year-old on loan at Hamilton Accies from Norwich City, and St Johnstone’s Zander Clark, who turns 25 in two months, are the only other keepers in their early 20s to have featured semi-regularly in the Premiership this season. In short, Hamilton is breaking the mould in terms of commanding the gloves for a club of Hearts’ stature.
As the last line of defence during what has been a turbulent season for the entire team, Hamilton has had to contend with intense scrutiny. He is aware that some supporters would have preferred to see their team rely on a more experienced goalkeeper, but is comfortable with the level of pressure on his shoulders as he strives to tighten up all aspects of his play.
“It’s a massive club so it means a lot to be No.1,” he said. “You’re always going to get a bit anxiety from the crowd because it’s such a big club and there’s so much expectation to make sure everything’s done well, but that’s why I play football, that’s why I love it. There’s so much expectation here, but I put the same pressure on myself as well because I want to improve and be the Hearts No.1 for a long time. The expectation is a good thing. There are always some difficult situations but you’ve just got to learn from them and learn how to manage them. It’s not been bad for me so far. I’m just desperate to be playing in the team every single week.”
Hamilton, who turned 23 last month, has struck up a strong rapport with goalkeeping coach Paul Gallacher since he arrived at the club from Partick Thistle last season. “Gall has been excellent with me in terms of passing on his experience,” he explained. “We go over the video together after every single game and look at bits. There’s always something that needs improved. There’s always something that you maybe don’t notice at the time but, once you see it back on the video, it becomes clearer. You then try and work on it in training and do it in games. Gall’s been top man for me – he’s been excellent.”
While Hamilton has endured some shaky moments in recent months – most notably when allowing Andrew Shinnie’s strike to elude him in the 3-1 Scottish Cup defeat by Hibs – he also boasts an impressive array of high-quality saves in his maiden campaign as a first-choice goalkeeper in senior football. “The one at Motherwell [in September] was alright, St Johnstone two weeks ago, up at Ross County I had a couple, Partick Thistle at home,” he said when asked to pick out his best saves. “There have been a good few. I’ve had loads of positives to build from but I also need to look at the negatives to try and improve on them and get myself better.
“You could say shot-stopping’s my main quality and I maybe have to work a bit on my kicking. It’s not like I can’t kick a ball, though – I’ve started plenty counter-attacks with my kicks. I have good bits and bad bits. There are always bits in games where you think ‘I should have done better there’, but I don’t think I’ve had many terrible moments. I’m always looking to improve every part of my game but, as a goalkeeper, my main goal is to stop the ball going in the net.”
Hearts’ form has dipped in recent months amid a period of major transition. Hamilton insists the turnover of players which has resulted in him playing behind an entirely new defence in the second half of the season is not a major factor for him, although he does miss the presence of right-back Callum Paterson, who has been injured for the past four months.
“I don’t think playing behind a new defence is a massive issue for me,” said the goalkeeper. “If the ball’s going to come into the box, it doesn’t really matter who’s there. There are certain little things that have changed, like Callum was really good for me because when you’re kicking, you know you can put it into his area and he’ll win it. But, generally, as a goalie, you just try and concentrate on yourself.”
In addition to constant pep talks from Gallacher, competition from his deputy, Viktor Noring, has helped drive Hamilton. “Viktor’s been really good. We get on well,” said Hamilton. “He trains really hard and he’s definitely pushing me. He doesn’t want to be sitting on the bench – he’s desperate to be playing, which is good for me as well because the standard of training has to be good. He’s a really good goalie and he’s helped me with his experience.”
Hamilton, who last month signed a new contract with Hearts until 2020, is heartened by his ongoing involvement in the Scotland set-up. Veteran Craig Gordon, Allan McGregor and David Marshall remain Gordon Strachan’s first three choices, but Hamilton, the former Scotland Under-21 goalkeeper, is clearly deemed the front-runner of the emerging generation. He was thrilled to earn a late call-up for last month’s World Cup qualifier against Slovenia after Marshall pulled out.
“That was fantastic,” he said of his recent inclusion. “Obviously, I’m proud and desperate to be in the Scotland squad, but the main thing is what I do in the Hearts team. If I’m not doing it here, I’ll not be considered for Scotland. I just need to keep getting better here and make sure I stay in the team.”
Hamilton has kept 12 clean sheets this season. After Hearts’ poor form in recent months, the goalkeeper is pleased that they will start their post-split fixtures on Saturday week on the back of consecutive shut-outs against Dundee and Kilmarnock. “You’re always happy with a clean sheet,” said Hamilton. “Goalies don’t want the ball going in the back of the net so to get back-to-back clean sheets is always going to be good for the confidence. It’s good for the defenders as well. We just need to build on it and try and get some more.”