Jamie MacDonald has no doubts that his friend and former protege Jack Hamilton will prove Hearts right for making him their first-choice goalkeeper.
The 22-year-old has made a solid start to life as the Jambos’ No.1 this season after his surprise elevation in the wake of Neil Alexander’s summer departure. MacDonald, Alexander’s predecessor as Hearts goalkeeper, first worked with Hamilton as a teenager and watched closely as the highly-regarded youngster progressed through the ranks. Now manning the barricades at struggling Kilmarnock following his departure from Tynecastle two and a half years ago, MacDonald will be thrilled to see Hamilton, now a member of the Scotland squad, standing as his opposite number when Hearts arrive at Rugby Park for their next Premiership match on Wednesday night.
“I’m glad Hearts decided to go with Jack because there was a lot of talk towards the end of last season about keeping him as No.2 or sending him out on loan,” MacDonald told the Evening News. “He’s been out on loan before but they had always been short-term moves. At 22 years old, whatever happened this season, it was important that he got a proper run of games, whether that was as first choice at Hearts or first choice elsewhere. I think Hearts have made the right decision because Jack’s a highly-rated goalkeeper and he’s only going to get better. Speaking from experience, the more games you play, the better you get.
“I first came across him when he was about 15. I think Steve Banks was still at Hearts at the time and we had Janos Balogh and Marian Kello, and Jack would occasionally come and train with us. From about 2012 onwards, it was me and Mark Ridgers, and Jack was the third choice. He’s always been highly thought of at Hearts. He’s got talent and he’s got good stature for a goalkeeper. He’s always been a big physical boy and he’s got a great mentality. He’s got a great attitude and just wants to be successful.”
MacDonald, who came through the ranks at Hearts, made his debut for the club as a 22-year-old in 2008, but it wasn’t until he was 25 that he truly established himself as No.1 in the 2011/12 season. He is thrilled at seeing Hamilton – whose girlfriend is the sister of MacDonald’s wife – being given the chance to flourish at an earlier age. “In my time at Hearts, things were different because there were a lot more goalies kicking about in the Romanov era,” said MacDonald, whose side visit Inverness today. “I had to wait a long time for my chance. But before me, they gave Craig Gordon a chance young, and the rest is history regarding him. Jack’s good enough, so there was no reason not to give him a chance.
“He’s been good so far. I watched the Motherwell game a few weeks ago and he was outstanding. He had an absolutely fantastic save at 0-0 but his overall game that night was good. He handled everything well and his distribution was good. He’s had a great start in a good Hearts team. I can see why Scotland have brought him in because most of the keepers around the squad before are older, so they are looking towards the next batch, with Jack, who has years ahead of him. They’ve probably looked at it and thought they need to start giving boys like Jack, Zander Clark and Scott Bain experience because they’re the next generation.”
MacDonald has been in such good form himself for Kilmarnock in the last year and a half that it is reasonable to enquire whether he feels he should have been given a Scotland call-up. The 30-year-old is philosophical about his international omission thus far but still believes his best years can be ahead of him.
“Football’s a funny game – you just never know,” he said. “I don’t focus on Scotland too much – I’m just trying to do well for Kilmarnock. Personally, I’ve probably been in the best form of my career even though it’s been in difficult circumstances. We’ve been on the end of a few hidings but overall I think my performances have been good. I feel like I’m contributing to games more in terms of making saves at the right time and winning us points. I’m probably sticking to the stereotypical perception that goalkeepers hit their best form in their late 20s/early 30s and I just want to keep improving.
“I didn’t get my chance as young as some others have, but, all going well, I still feel like I’ve got plenty years left in me. I’d love to play another ten years, but time will tell. I do things a lot differently now to when I was younger because you learn the game as you get older. It’s as much about reading the game as it is about physical attributes. Neil Alexander, who was No.1 at Hearts at 38, is a prime example of what you can do if you look after yourself. If he can do it, why can’t I? It’s something to aim for.”