Being Hearts’ No.1 is Jack Hamilton’s life ambition. He now faces the biggest year of his life trying to realise that dream. It becomes clear when chatting to the young goalkeeper that he will do anything to achieve this potential destiny.
Show patience, deputise when asked, go on loan to another club, the young goalkeeper is willing to take whatever steps necessary. It will be another 12 months before he gets the opportunity to succeed first-choice keeper Neil Alexander but, at 22, time is on his side.
Hamilton stepped into the six-yard box for Saturday’s match with Ross County as Alexander took a well-earned rest. An outstanding save from a one-on-one with County striker Alex Schalk was the goalkeeping highlight of a disappointing 1-1 draw. Perhaps more importantly, the outing gave the Riccarton youth academy graduate more understanding of what is required to keep goal at Tynecastle.
It was his first league game of the season and eighth Hearts appearance overall. It is fair to say he is still buzzing from the adrenalin when we talk. He might continue in goal against Aberdeen and St Johnstone in the final two matches of the season. However, next season will be of far greater significance as he prepares for a season-long loan.
Head coach Robbie Neilson wants to see Hamilton play “35 to 40 games” throughout a full campaign before deciding whether he is ready to assume Alexander’s mantle. The veteran goalkeeper would then be expected to retire, but only if Hamilton is ready. All of which renders the next 12 months make or break time for the young upstart.
“Every season is massive but next season I really need to kick on,” said Hamilton, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I want to improve and come back here ready to be number one.
“In my head, I know what I want to do. I want to be the Hearts’ number one goalkeeper. That’s down to me. I can’t expect just to go away somewhere and be a fantastic keeper. I need to go and work hard and try to improve in every training session and every game I play.
“I have to prove myself to the manager while I’m on loan that I’m a good goalkeeper even before I come back here.”
Hamilton publicly declared his frustration at not playing enough competitive club football during a trip to France with Scotland Under-21s in March. Discussions with Neilson have alleviated any concern over stagnation, thankfully.
“Robbie had spoken to me and told me that a loan would help,” continued the goalkeeper. “I kind of had an idea that’s what would be happening. I need game time. We’ve got Neil here and he’s had an excellent season. He’s a great goalkeeper and he’ll probably kick on from that next year.
“To go out and play games is probably essential for a young goalkeeper like myself and that’s what we agreed was the best idea.
“It’s mentally hard because there’s nothing better than playing games. When you train every week and you don’t have a game on a Saturday, it’s difficult. It’s brilliant to be involved in the squad, a successful squad at that, which has made it into Europe this year. It’s great to come out and warm-up with Neil and even just watch him.
“It’s all a learning curve for me. I need to push Neil and I need to take on board things he does. There are things he does that maybe aren’t for me and there are bits of my game I need to try and improve.”
Playing regularly from start to finish in a gruelling campaign should accelerate his progress. Hearts are currently trying to bring in another deputy goalkeeper, which would allow Hamilton to leave on loan over the summer.
He may join another Scottish Premiership club or drop into the Championship. The man himself isn’t overly fussed about the league. For him it’s all about playing.
“Game time is the key. The Championship is a good standard and there are some very good teams in that league. If I’m part of that next season it would be great. When Hearts don’t have a game and I’m out on loan, there will definitely be somebody from the club watching me to see how I’m getting on. I’m sure there will be loads of feedback.”
He certainly staked a claim at the weekend and was within two minutes of keeping a clean sheet. David Goodwillie headed Ross County’s equaliser minutes after Juanma looked to have won the match for Hearts.
Although disappointed with the late concession, Hamilton took plenty from the occasion.
“It was a brilliant experience on Saturday. These are the games you want to be involved in. You’re playing in front of 16,000-17,000 people, everybody’s on your case and you’ve got to stay switched on. It’s not like an under-20 game where people just go through the motions. These are the games you want to play in and the ones you learn most in.”
He has an opportunity to finish the season in the first team. Thursday’s trip to Aberdeen precedes a home game against St Johnstone on Sunday to end a remarkably successful first season back in the Premiership for Hearts.
Neilson and Alexander will debate the issue before the trip to Pittodrie and decide whether to try Hamilton out at one of Scotland’s most difficult venues. The youngster simply must wait to discover his fate.
“I’ve not got a clue,” he admitted when asked if he will be involved. “We’re in training just now so it’s a case of getting back to work and we’ll take it from there. To play at Tynecastle in front of 16,000 people at the weekend was excellent. Once you get that, you just want more and more. Hopefully I can get to the stage where I can progress and be that number one eventually.”