Chatting with Jack Hamilton in a quiet corner of Riccarton is like talking to the future. This guy may well be the next Hearts No.1.
He certainly aims to be. Leaning back against a wall, he outlines his aspirations in a friendly but determined manner: Whenever Neil Alexander decides to retire, Hamilton fully intends to step in. It’s one of his life ambitions.
The change isn’t likely to happen too quickly, for Alexander shows no signs of wilting as Hearts’ first-choice keeper at the age of 37. Hamilton, 16 years his junior, knows patience is a virtue when you’re an ambitious youngster. Games like tonight’s League Cup tie at Forfar can provide vital experience for when the time comes.
Hamilton played against Arbroath in the first round of the League Cup last month and is in line to feature in this evening’s second round match. He relishes the experience and is already dreaming of a cup run and possible Hampden appearance, but then again who wouldn’t? To succeed Alexander, he will need to prove his ability to handle big occasions. Helping Hearts to the latter stages of a knockout tournament would do just that.
For the moment, the keeper is focused on learning and shows a commendable work ethic for one so young. His ultimate aim is always at the forefront of his mind. When the day comes that Alexander is no longer Hearts’ No.1, Hamilton is determined to be ready.
“That is the goal. I work every day in training and I want to be the No.1 for Hearts,” said Hamilton in an exclusive Evening News interview. “Hopefully when my chance comes I can take it. You’re never happy sitting on the bench. You want to play games. I’d love to be playing games because you need that to become a better goalkeeper. You need the atmosphere with the big crowds and a bit of pressure. If I bide my time, hopefully it will come quicker.
“I don’t know when Neilly will stop. He’s still in great physical shape. I think he can eat what he wants and he’s still as thin as a stick. I’d love to be playing but if it means waiting to get that first-team jersey here, then I’m more than willing to do it.”
Hearts promoted Hamilton during the summer from third-choice keeper to second, with Scott Gallacher told he can leave for free. It was a timely boost for the man stepping up. “Now you now where you stand,” he said. “I’ve got Neilly in front of me so I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him. I watch the way he plays, the way he commands his area and controls the back four.
“I’m trying to bring that stuff into my game. Neilly takes control of the pitch. He’s a leader on the park as well as off it. He’s definitely one to learn from. At least I know I’m second in line now and I just need to push towards that No.1 spot.
“It’s about being patient, but you need to treat every training session like a game and take something out of it. That’s what I try to do. That will keep me going for the games if I get that chance in the team. Neilly is good to work with. We’ll have a wee go at each other and he tries to push you on. I can try to push him as well and keep him on his toes. That’s what my aim is, while also learning from him.”
Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, is keen to give Hamilton an opportunity at the top level when the time is right. Cup ties against lower-league opponents carry less of a profile, therefore Hamilton can step in without too much pressure.
“I’m hoping to play. I played in the last round so it would be great to get another game under my belt tonight,” he said. “I need as many games as I can. I’m not going to get better without playing games. It’s just about preparing for when that chance comes and trying to take it.
“It’s great that I was put in for the Arbroath game and it shows he [Neilson] has got a bit of belief in me. I’ve spoken to him and he says I will get that chance. I need to prepare for the games and, when I’m not playing, train as hard as I can and use training sessions as my game. I’ll just keep building and trying to improve.
“It would be brilliant to play in all the cup games. Maybe you get to a semi-final and end up at Hampden in front of a packed crowd. With all the fans there, it would probably be the highlight of my career. You’ve got to take it one game at a time, though. We need to get past Forfar first.”
Station Park is a venue Hamilton knows well. He spent two months on loan at Forfar in season 2012/13 and managed nine appearances covering for the injured Derek Soutar. It is one of five loan moves on his CV – further evidence that Hearts want to ensure he gets experience to enhance his progress.
He is fully aware of the potential hazards lying in wait in Angus. Hearts have forced the entire country to sit up and take notice after starting their Premiership campaign with give wins from five games. Forfar’s three wins from three in League One have gone largely unnoticed.
“They’ll probably fancy themselves. They’ll fancy themselves to be in with a chance,” admitted Hamilton. “As long as we go up there and put a marker down early on. I’ll prepare properly, probably as if I’m playing at Hampden. It’s Forfar’s pitch but it will still be a good occasion and it will be packed with fans. It’ll be good experience. I had a great time on loan there and it will be nice to go back. A few of the boys are still there so it would be good to play against them.”