Jamie Brandon wasn’t for wilting in the Celtic Park heat. In what represented the ultimate baptism of fire for any young Scottish player, the 19-year-old Glaswegian was pitched in for his Hearts first-team debut against an invincible Celtic side in front of almost 59,000 people.
While development players tend to be bedded in gently with a couple of late substitute appearances in low-key matches to let them find their feet, Brandon, who had been an unused substitute in the defeat at St Johnstone last Wednesday, was thrown straight into the starting line-up on Sunday at the home of a club celebrating both their sixth league title in a row and the 50th anniversary of their European Cup triumph.
While there was an obvious danger of the untried youngster being overcome by the magnitude of the occasion as an electric atmosphere gripped a party-mode Celtic Park in the run-up to kick-off, the decision to start him in such a daunting environment was a calculated call by Hearts management, who had full faith that the young right-back could handle the challenge.
Deployed at wing-back, where part of his role involved nullifying the twin threat of Celtic’s lethal left-sided marauders Kieran Tierney and Scott Sinclair, Brandon didn’t disappoint. Aside from a slack clearance which allowed Stuart Armstrong to seal a 2-0 home win, the teenager played with a level of composure and presence that belied the fact his only previous football this season had come in the development league.
“It was a great experience playing in front of 60,000 people,” he said. “It was a great feeling to walk out for a game like that. There was a party atmosphere in the stadium but we just had to focus on trying to do our best to get a result for ourselves. Unfortunately it didn’t happen, but I feel I did well. I could have done better for the second goal, but I just need to learn from it.”
Brandon, who joined from Rangers along with best friend Rory Currie last summer, had no idea he would be starting at Celtic Park until 24 hours before the match. “I’ve been training with the first team but I had no indication during the week that I was going to start,” he said. “I hoped I might have a chance of being on the bench and getting on for a bit but I didn’t expect to start. I found out on Saturday that I’d be starting when we were working on shape in training. I was really excited and really looking forward to it. I phoned my dad, and my mum’s away on a trip just now but I let her know as well. My dad came to the game.”
The presence of the 37-year-old Aaron Hughes at centre-back and 34-year-old captain Don Cowie ahead of him on the right side of midfield gave Brandon some welcome assurance on his big day. “It helped having Aaron in defence because he spoke me through the game, and I also had Don in front of me for most of it, so that helped me a lot,” he explained. “The first time I got the ball, I didn’t realise how quick the tempo was. In the first five minutes or so you’re a bit nervous, but after that it settles, and it just becomes a game of football. I felt fine after that.
“It’s a huge difference from the development league because you’re going to playing against the best players in the country. Scott Sinclair’s a good player who has played in the English Prem so it was a great experience to play against him. It’s great for me to show that I can deal with that kind of game and that kind of environment. It’s a big step forward for me.”
Brandon has relished his first year within Hearts’ academy and intends to ensure that Sunday’s start is the first of many. “When I first came through last year, I liked the set-up and I felt Jon Daly and the rest of the coaches could benefit my game, and that’s proving to be the case. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s great to have Rory here as well because he’s my best pal.
“I had a back injury in January and I was out for two months, then I came back and did well and managed to get myself involved with the first team towards the tail end of the season, which is always going to be exciting. There’s opportunities here, so hopefully I can grasp my chance and move forward.”
Ian Cathro insists Brandon had earned the right to start Sunday’s match and was encouraged by how well he handled his big day.
“He dealt with the game and he dealt with the ball very well,” said the head coach. “It was a big occasion and he’s obviously dealt with it well. He’s a focused player. He’s trained with us for a couple of weeks and shown great qualities in terms of his attitude and his intensity.
“He was deserving of his opportunity, and that’s what this football club does. When young players are ready for an opportunity, they’ll get it, regardless of whether it’s a dead game at the end of the season or a game in October. It wasn’t a gift to Jamie. He gave us qualities on the pitch and took part in the game. I had no concern about Jamie being rocked by it. That’s part of him being ready for it.”