Jack Hamilton has kept his counsel all summer as rumours over his Hearts future gathered pace. He has no intention of going anywhere.
Be clear on one thing: Any goalkeeper arriving at Tynecastle faces an almighty fight to oust this defiant 23-year-old.
Hearts’ desire to sign a more experienced keeper was clear from the first morning of pre-season training, despite Hamilton being their undisputed first choice throughout last year. Speaking for the first time since having the No.1 shirt taken from him, he is philosophical but utterly determined to prove his point wearing No.13.
Former head coach Ian Cathro told Hamilton he wanted a new goalkeeper on the day Hearts players reported back to Riccarton in June. All that did was motivate the Scotland squad man to improve his game and fight for his place – the place he dreamt of for years whilst progressing through the club’s youth academy, and which he had waited so patiently for since turning professional.
Hamilton was prompted to first choice a year ago under Cathro’s predecessor Robbie Neilson. It is a privilege he has no plans to relinquish, particularly with Cathro now gone and no goalkeeper signed as yet. He has played every minute of Hearts’ six competitive matches so far this season and kept a clean sheet in Saturday’s timely victory at Kilmarnock. If possession really is nine tenths of the law, Hamilton is exactly where he wants to be.
“Obviously, you want to be No.1. I just want to be on the park,” he said in an exclusive interview. “There’s no point having a No.1 on your back if you aren’t going to be playing. It shows I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot of improving to do.
“When you come in on the first day of pre-season training and you see that, obviously you’re disappointed. You think: ‘Right, I’ve got to really up my game here and get better. I need to push to keep my place’.
“I won’t give it up without a fight, not at all. It will be good if somebody comes in because they will obviously be of a really high standard. It might be somebody I’ll learn from and it’s going to be more competition. I’ve just got to concentrate on myself and take things one game at a time – or one minute at a time – and try to get myself better.”
Cathro’s words had a profound effect on Hamilton despite the shock of being demoted with no superior in place. “I spoke to the manager on the first day I came back in. He was really open and honest,” revealed the goalkeeper. “He told me he wanted to bring in another goalkeeper, which is fair enough. That’s football and it happens all over the world.
“He was honest and told me a lot of positive things and gave me positive things to work on. It was good of him to do that.”
At no point did Hamilton feel his Hearts career might be over. He immediately set about working extra hours with the club’s goalkeeping coach, Paul Gallacher.
“I didn’t feel my time was up. I realised I had to go away and work hard to improve. You play football to play for clubs like Hearts; big clubs with big supports and big expectations. I don’t take that lightly. I want to fulfil that ambition and keep it going.
“I’m just going into training every day to concentrate on myself, work hard and try to remain in the team. I just want to play games and I want to be the No.1 goalkeeper for Hearts. That’s what I’m continuously working on.
“Gall, the goalie coach, has been tremendous with me and he deserves a lot of credit. The hours we put in are a hell of a lot and he doesn’t need to do it with me. He’s been a brilliant help. Hopefully the two of us working together can keep me progressing.”
He may still count the hours until the transfer window closes at the end of the month, though. “That’s it but, if it happens, then it happens,” he said. “I’ve just got to get my head down because I can’t control what goes on. I can only put in performances which help the team and help us progress.”
He did precisely that at Rugby Park at the weekend. Hamilton’s clean sheet included a stunning double save in the second half to deny Rory McKenzie a certain equalising goal. His contribution was duly noted by Hearts’ interim head coach, Jon Daly.
“Jack pulled us out of a hole with that fantastic double save,” said Daly. “Apart from that, he didn’t have an awful lot to do. He had a number of long shots to deal with and he held on to them really well. He came and took crosses and his distribution was good.”
The Irishman is genuinely happy seeing Hamilton thrive after a mentally tough summer. Fans criticised his performances last season and during July’s short Betfred Cup campaign. The response has been a strong one.
“He’s a young goalkeeper who we have high hopes for,” continued Daly. “He’s probably been under a little bit of pressure and taken a bit of criticism. If you’re a goalkeeper and you make a mistake, it generally leads to a goal. Saturday will do his confidence good, especially making that double save when he did.”
The ongoing goalkeeping hunt is an added distraction. “To deal with that as a young goalkeeper is always going to be difficult. You come back for pre-season and you get the No.1 jersey taken off you when there hasn’t actually been another keeper brought in. That’s another situation which doesn’t help your confidence.
“I’m delighted for Jack because he’s a good kid. He works so hard in training every day with Paul Gallacher and Viktor Noring and the under-20 goalies. For Jack to keep a clean sheet and help the team get three points, I’m extremely happy for him.”
Victory in Ayrshire was crucial to Hearts. They lost at Celtic Park on the Premiership’s opening weekend and won’t play at Tynecastle until November while the new main stand is completed. “We knew we had to go and put a marker down at Killie,” said Hamilton.
“To get a clean sheet and a win is a great result for us. It lifts our confidence big time. Winning brings that spirit together, although there’s no point talking it up if we can’t go and do it next week as well.
“John Souttar was brilliant for us in his first 90 minutes since his injury. Christophe Berra has played against the best in the world at international level and down in England. Having him in the team brings that experience you need and it really helps the rest of us round about him.
“There are a lot of difficult games coming up. [Playing at] Murrayfield will be good but it’s away games, though. Nothing beats playing at Tynecastle. That’s our home.
“It’s going to be hard playing elsewhere but if we can grind it out and get over this wee period then we’ll have a lot of games coming up at home later in the season.”