James Penrice: How Hearts convinced me to sign, what I told my Mum, and why I'll handle Tynecastle's demands

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The defender is delighted with his choice of club after leaving Livingston

It took just one meeting to convince James Penrice that Hearts should be his next destination. Talks with sporting director Joe Savage and head coach Steven Naismith on the outskirts of Edinburgh back in January laid the foundations for the Livingston left-back to make the short journey along the M8. He is now settled at Hearts’ pre-season training base in Tenerife and excited by the prospect of enhancing his career over the next three years.

“I've enjoyed it. This is obviously a massive step up from where I was previously,” said the 25-year-old in an interview at the team hotel. “Just having a training ground and stuff like that is a massive difference for me. Wee silly things like breakfast and lunch. I had it at Livingston but not to the standard it is here. Even in training, it's fast-tempo and the standard is probably going to take a wee bit of time to get used to. I'm just buzzing to be here and I've enjoyed it a lot.

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“The short-term goal is to make myself a mainstay in the team. The competition is very high, there are good players in the positions I want to play in. It's just bedding in and getting used to a new way of playing. It's very different to what I was used to at Livingston. We didn't really have the ball in the majority of our games. Now it's more possession-based, going and hurting teams. I think that will ultimately suit me and make me a better player. I want to be one of the first names on the teamsheet.

“The long-term goal is to be successful. I want to be remembered for my time here. I don't want to just be one of the players who went to Hearts and then he dropped off. I want to push on and see where it can take me. I had experience with [Partick] Thistle when I was really young and I was probably naive. I wasn't ready to play. I had a couple of loans and then Livingston was a very big learning curve.

“I got chucked in quickly and that was probably the best thing for me. Now I'm at a point in my career where I need to go and make that next step, really cement myself in this league. I think I've done not a bad job over the last three years at Livingston but I think now the natural progression is to go up.”

He could have gone elsewhere in the Scottish Premiership and there was also interest from England. Penrice is forthright on why he chose Hearts, and how quickly the decision was made. “My agent spoke to a few teams. I got the inkling that Hearts were wanting to meet me in January,” he recalled. “I remember coming out of the meeting with Naisy and Joe, I phoned my Mum and said: 'I want to go to Hearts.' Everything in the meeting, it just all made sense. There were teams in February wanting to phone but I just told my agent: 'If I'm staying in Scotland, it's Hearts.' They are the only team I'd have gone to. My mind was made up quickly. Hopefully it's the right decision.”

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The powers that be and their powers of persuasion clearly had the desired effect. “They had a powerpoint, they went through clips of my game and then went through how Hearts play,” explained Penrice. “They spoke about the club, the demand, the training ground, and that was important for me - having a base where I can become better. No disrespect to Livingston. They did what the can but the standard here is so high that you can only get better. That's what I took away from the meeting - if I come here, I'm going to improve. I might not be right in straight away but I'm going to become a better player. That's why I thought this was the best step for me.”

Perhaps Penrice’s biggest strength are his incisive forward runs. He is able to turn defence into attack in an instant if the supply is accurate. Hearts fans should enjoy seeing plenty of him marauding up the left flank this season. “It's having players on the ball who will pick you out if you make those runs,” he said. “No disrespect to Livingston but it's playing with wingers who know that, if you go wide, then they can come inside or vice-versa.

“It’s just having a relationship with a winger that is ultimately going to benefit you on a Saturday and allow you to go forward more. We have spoken in so much detail on this trip already that you are going to get freedom to go and attack from wing-back or left-back. That will only help my game. A massive part of my game is running, running in behind and crossing. Allowing me to do that will hopefully help me and the club.”

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He sits sporting the No.29 training kit, his squad number at Partick Thistle and Livingston. “It was the number I got at Thistle, my first professional number,” he explained. “I made my debut with that and kept it for a couple of years. Then I changed to No.3 and got relegated. When I went to Livingston I asked for No.3 and didn't get it so I went back to No.29. It's stuck with me now. When I came here the first number I asked for was 29. I asked Gogsy [kit man] and he said: 'It's a bit early to be giving out numbers. What one would you want?' I said 29 and he replied: 'Oh, that'll be fine.'

A hip flexor operation in February ended Penrice’s season early as Livingston were relegated from the Premiership. Now fully recovered, he is careful not to overtrain in the 30-degree Canarian sunshine. “I feel good. I'm working with the physios just to try not to do too much. I feel good training, I've not had any relapses but I'd rather be cautious. I want to get through training and make sure I'm available rather than sitting in a physio room. I did that for the last four months of last season and it killed me. I'm just watching what I'm doing. Taking each day as it comes will be best for me.”

New physical demands will be accompanied by new mental ones over the months ahead. Penrice is sufficiently acquainted with Scotland’s top flight and its idiosyncrasies not to fret too much. He is fully aware of how difficult life at Tynecastle can be when results and performances dip. A player with a relentless work ethic, he is also tough in the mind having learned from former manager David Martindale that nothing beats hard graft.

“I knew Davie really well,” said Penrice. “My family knew Davie growing up so there was a real connection. When I was leaving Thistle, the only place I was going was Livingston. You get taught at Livingston that hard work is the first thing. As soon as you step on the pitch, it needs to be 100 per cent because you don't have the quality that you have in this [Hearts] dressing room. You have to outwork and outfight others and that's a fundamental for Livingston. That's why they have been so successful for so long.

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“It's massive respect to Davie for building a team like that, finding a way to win in a tough league with that budget. Time and time again he did it and it's credit to the players as well. Players have left there and moved up. Look at Nicky Devlin, Alan Forrest, Craig Halkett. Livingston instil it in you that hard work comes first. If you work harder than your opponent, you are 50 metres in front of him already.”

Working under Martindale also helped Penrice’s mental resilience. “Aye, definitely! Don't get me wrong, he had a few screams at me but he was actually all right with me. After some of the games, you are walking away from it with your head fried. You are thinking about putting it to bed. It's totally reactive after a game if a manager goes mental. To be fair to Livingston, we always came in on the Monday and everything was put to bed. You can't dwell on games, you just need to go again. That's my mentality. If it doesn't work, just go again.”

Hearts will test him on an entirely different level. “That's why I thought this was the next step for me. The big European nights are a massive draw but I've played at Tynecastle before. I've been at games and there have been boos towards the home players. Ultimately, you've got to deal with it. There's no hiding from it.

“If you are having a bad game, there is no point greetin' about it. They want to win like you and they want to enjoy their weekend so you have to handle it. That's what Naisy said to me when I came in: 'There is a massive demand, you need to get used to it, and get used to it quick.' I said that was fine with me. I feel good with that.”

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