From 728 people at Ochilview to 17,280 at Tynecastle. Jack Hamilton just finished the ultimate whirlwind week.
The young 20-year-old kept goal for Stenhousemuir against Airdrie in front of a paltry crowd a week past Saturday. Just eight days later, he found himself tossed into the cauldron of an Edinburgh derby against Hibs.
For a young goalkeeper making his competitive Hearts debut, he handled the occasion with aplomb. Injuries to Neil Alexander and Scott Gallacher forced his return just three games into a six-month loan at his formative club in League One. It was assumed Hamilton would provide cover, especially when Hearts announced the signing of 28-year-old Lee Hollis on Friday afternoon. Even the youngster half expected as much sitting in the home dressing-room on Sunday morning.
Then came head coach Robbie Neilson’s team announcement. “Jack Hamilton in goal.” Still he struggled to take in what was happening. “It was just a normal week of training. I’d been called back from my loan because Neilly [Alexander] hurt his face,” recalled Hamilton.
“We were setting up for the Hibs game in training all week and Gall [Gallacher] was playing. Then, towards the end of training on Friday, he went over on his ankle. It never really sank in until I started the warm-up on Sunday. Then I was like, ‘this is real’. It was a great feeling.
“The gaffer didn’t name the team until we were sitting in the dressing-room. I kind of had a rough idea that I might play so I just prepared myself just as I would if I knew I was playing. When the team was read out it was brilliant, everything was going. It was the same as you’d prepare for any other game. You go into it thinking it’s just like any other game and it will take care of itself.
“I was looking forward to the season at Stenny and being part of the team there, but obviously things happened here and I got thrown right in. I went out on loan to get games to prepare me for first-team level. I just didn’t expect to be thrown in at Hearts this early.”
Neilson’s emotional hug for the young keeper at full-time signalled his delight at the end of Hearts’ 2-1 win. Hamilton had conceded a penalty despite getting hands to the ball as Danny Handling challenged in the first half. Liam Craig missed from the spot and Hearts eventually wore down Hibs’ resistance with goals from Sam Nicholson and a Prince Buaben penalty.
“Hamilton left the field feeling he had proved a point. Not that he would ever get carried away. “He [Neilson] was just saying ‘good performance’ when I came off at the end but I know myself I need to keep my feet on the ground. I’ve done nothing yet,” he continued.
“There were things I can do better but overall I did okay for a first game. At the time, I didn’t know the referee had given the penalty. I was sure I’d got hands to the ball so I was surprised. I was relieved when it went wide, though. I thought, ‘this could be a terrible start to my debut’, but it went in my favour.
“The Hearts fans were brilliant. They were right behind us from the start to the end and they understand the situation you’re in. They help you through the game, so that makes it a lot easier. Then there are boys in the team like Danny Wilson, Alim Ozturk and the rest. They all helped me and have been really good with me.”
Hamilton joined Hearts from Stenhousemuir’s youth academy five years ago alongside brother Colin, now left-back at Brechin City. They were recommended by then-Scotland youth coach Campbell Money. Previous loans spells at Forfar and East Fife allowed the goalkeeper to dip a toe in the unforgiving waters of senior football before those three games at Stenhousemuir.
Ironically, two of those outings will now cost him his place in the Hearts team. Hamilton is cup-tied for tomorrow night’s Petrofac Training Cup tie at Livingston and next week’s League Cup match with Stenhousemuir. He has already played for Stenny in both competitions.
It should come as no surprise that his long-term aim is to become the established No.1 at Tynecastle. For now, he is content just putting in a challenge for the jersey whilst developing in the under-20 team. The arrivals of Alexander and Gallacher saw him start the season third choice and it made sense to put him out on loan. Circumstances cut that short and he is now eager to stake a claim whilst two of his senior colleagues recover from injury.
“Even those three games at Stenny have helped me. As long as I can keep impressing in training, then hopefully I’ll get the chance to keep playing. That’s down to me again. I need to keep showing the gaffer that I’m capable of it. Hopefully, if selected, I’ll be there for the next game at the weekend. I just need to work hard because I need to keep producing and I need to keep doing well to get my name on that teamsheet.”
It is that kind of dedication which saw Hamilton dodge the post-derby celebrations as Hearts fans milked another victory over their rivals in watering holes across Edinburgh. “We were in training yesterday morning so I had to get home and prepare myself for training. I’m starting to prepare for the game at the weekend, if selected.”
Not even a moment’s reflection on a successful debut? “It’s done and dusted now so it’s on to the next game for me. I’ve never had a week like this before.”
Nor will he again. Hamilton kept a clean sheet for Stenhousemuir against Airdrie ten days ago but that could not compare with the tumultuous atmosphere against Hibs. Debuting for Hearts in an Edinburgh derby win offered first-hand evidence of what his ultimate career goal is.