MANNEQUINS are watching Jon Daly’s every move. There are training goals behind him, footballs beside him and astroturf underfoot. Instead of weaving through the mannequins and belting one of the balls into the net like he has done all his life, Daly now has a watching brief only.
This is the Irishman’s new existence as under-20 coach at Hearts. He is 33 and still young enough to be playing professionally. However, the opportunity to forge a coaching career as a leading figure within the Riccarton youth academy was one worth retiring for.
Having chosen not to renew his playing contract at Raith Rovers last month, Daly ended a career which included spells at Stockport County, Hartlepool United, Dundee United and Rangers. He is settling into his new role well. This is underlined by Hearts’ 5-0 win over Queen of the South in Monday night’s SFA Youth Cup quarter-final. They now face his old club, Dundee United, in the semi-finals.
He arrived at Riccarton six weeks ago with a philosophy to help nurture the next generation alongside youth coach Liam Fox. Taking over from Jack Ross mid-season meant he had to hit the ground running and implement ideas quickly. He sees a potential new batch of kids ready to emerge and challenge for first-team places. That excites him and motivates him now, rather than fighting for a jersey himself.
“I’d signed a short-term deal at Raith and my plan was to play on for as long as I possibly could. This opportunity came about and it was too good to let it pass,” said Daly, speaking to the Evening News in his first media interview since arriving at Hearts.
“Once I’d spoken to Craig Levein [Hearts’ director of football], I knew I was in the running for it. I’d made my mind up that, if I got offered the role, I was taking it. It didn’t take too long to think about. I’m delighted I’ve got the opportunity of a position like this in my first coaching role.
“We want to help young players on the footballing side but off the park as well. For the young boys, it can be a lot of work mentally. If you can get them in the right frame of mind, then it gives them the best chance on the park. The quality of young players we have here is excellent.”
So what is Daly’s approach to youth development? Put simply, he wants to mix technical skill with physical strength to provide head coach Robbie Neilson with ready-made first-team players.
“The game is changing. A lot of players coming through now are technically better than players in the past. I do think the physical side of it comes into play. You need to make sure you’re able to take the contact and the hits in the games. It’s important that we try to develop players technically and physically. When they step up into the first team, whether it’s here or anywhere else, they need to be ready to go and compete.”
Dario Zanatta is leading the next group of Hearts academy graduates, closely followed by Liam Smith, Sean McKirdy, Angus Beith, Robbie Buchanan, Lewis Moore, Callumn Morrison and Daniel Baur. Will any of them be promoted to the first-team squad for next season? “I’m only new to the role so it’s something I’ll look at, probably at the start of next year. I’m just bedding myself in and getting used to who is here, what their strengths and weaknesses are,” admitted Daly.
“Quite a few have made the step this year. Dario is the most notable one. Again, he’s physically up to the challenge. He can manage the workload and the physicality of it. It will be up to us to help and push them as much as we can. If Robbie is short of bodies, he knows he can turn to the younger boys and they won’t let him down.”
Hearts recruited nine new first-team players during 2015 but only two were Scottish – Gavin Reilly and Danny Swanson. The latter has since moved on to St Johnstone. Supporters are naturally keen to see young Scots making the breakthrough after the “administration generation” of Jason Holt, Brad McKay et al.
“I think you can see Robbie hasn’t been shy to give young boys a chance,” continued Daly. “He always has three or four in his squad. We have got some good young Scottish boys coming through. It’s down to the player as well because they need to keep their feet on the ground and their head right. If they get a couple of appearances, they can’t get carried away and think the hard work is done.
“We’re delighted with the young players’ progress and there are a couple of them banging on the door now. We saw that with the trip to Ross County the other week when seven or eight of them travelled up with the first team. That shows how close they are. It only takes a couple of injuries or suspensions for them to get an opportunity. We emphasise that they need to eat the right things, drink the right things and perform in training so that they stand out. They aren’t too far away. We also have some 14 and 15-year-olds who have been involved with the under-20s but it’s just a bit too soon for them to be involved at any higher a level. It’s not fair on the young boys to stick them in against fully-grown men yet because they could get hurt. It’s important we build them up the right way. It’s important they are technically good enough but they need to be able to manage it physically as well.
“The decision is Robbie’s at the end of the day. If he asks myself, Liam or Stevie Crawford, we’ll give our opinion. It’s good for me and Foxy that we travel with the first team and are around the squad on matchdays to see what happens.”
Watching, learning and listening. Jon Daly is enjoying the change to his working life and now hopes to change the lives of a few teenagers over the coming months and years.