The impending exits of Brad McKay and Danny Wilson from Hearts create a void Jordan McGhee will be desperate to fill.
Still only 18, he has nearly 40 competitive games to his name and is waiting patiently to establish himself as first-choice centre-back. Given the chance to develop, he has the potential to make Hearts serious money.
That is the opinion of Darren Murray, the former Riccarton youth coach who rates McGhee so highly he had him playing under-19 football at the age of 15. The teenager is now a Scotland Under-21 regular but is being nurtured carefully at club level. McKay, Wilson and Alim Ozturk are all ahead of him in the centre-back queue and McGhee has had to content himself with playing right-back in most of his 15 starts this season.
A huge opportunity beckons with two of the above-named about to depart. Hearts will sign at least one and possibly two replacements during the summer. However, McGhee signed a contract extension until summer 2017 in January and is considered part of the future at Tynecastle. The calibre of the new signings will have a major bearing on his prospects for a regular starting berth next season in the Scottish Premiership. Murray believes he will grow in stature if given the chance in Scotland’s top flight.
“Jordan McGhee could be a real star for Hearts and he has the potential to go for a lot of money,” said Murray, now back in Edinburgh after leaving his coaching role at Coventry City. “When he was very young, he was put into the Scotland Under-21 squad and played centre-back in European Championship qualifiers. People rate Jordan a great deal.
“He has to be playing first-team football now. I think Hearts recognise he’s a talented player and, given time and experience, he’ll go on to be a very good player for them. The key word there is experience. The only way you gain experience is by playing.
“Although Hearts will go out and recruit one or maybe even two centre-backs in the close season, I think it would be wise to consider Jordan as a replacement as well. You’ve got a kid there who has been moulded into a ball-playing centre-back, which is the way Hearts want to play. He likes to play the ball out from defence but he is also a very good defender. He’s a ready-made player to go in there and stake his claim for a staring position week in and week out.
“Centre-back is a position where you look for experience and Hearts have that through the spine of the time. However, Jordan has a lot to offer. He’s aggressive, he’s one of the best at playing out from the back and he understands the game. He covers and reads things well.
“Come next season, if Jordan is given a chance, I don’t think he would let anybody down. I think he would thrive on the demands of the Premiership. The majority of centre-backs playing in there just now are experienced players and sometimes that’s the one thing you can’t buy. You only get it through playing.”
McGhee is not yet the finished article and has already spoken of his wish to “bulk-up” and become more of a dominant physical presence. His talent and desire to learn has already taken him to a level beyond his years. Hearts’ intent is to hone their own players and sell them on at a profit and McGhee is in that category. Stoke City and Sunderland have monitored him for some time, but first he must cement a place under the Tynecastle head coach Robbie Neilson.
“A lot of people think a lot of Jordan McGhee and I’m certainly one of them,” continued Murray. “He’s not just a terrific player but he’s a good character too. Hearts’ recruitment has been about bringing in good players and good characters and Jordan fits the bill that way. I believe he’s got a very bright future.
“I’m sure Craig Levein [director of football] and Robbie will know Jordan needs to work on aspects of his game. They were both defenders at the top level themselves. If we’re talking about Hearts bringing players through their system, Jordan will certainly be one who will go from strength to strength given some experience and some time.
“Every club in Scotland is a selling club and if Hearts are looking at it that way then they will give him an opportunity. I’ve been away from the club for a wee while now so I’m sure Robbie and Craig will have their own thoughts. It’s up to them to come to a decision, whether they bring in one or two centre-backs or go with Jordan and give him that opportunity.”
As well as McGhee, Murray worked with Callum Paterson, Sam Nicholson, Jamie Walker, Billy King and a host of Riccarton graduates who became first-team regulars at Hearts. His belief is that, when kids are told it’s sink or swim time, most tend to swim.
“I believe, if you give these young lads an opportunity, they can surprise you and gain in confidence. I would certainly suggest, in Jordan’s case, he’s as good as anyone of his age in that position.
“He’s been schooled to play the ball out from the back, he’s great in possession, he reads the game so well and he’s got a tough mental attitude from a brilliant family who are very grounded. He’s a future star for me. Hearts have had a fantastic season and Jordan’s been a part of it. I know he’ll be frustrated at times when he’s been left out but he’s a very level-headed boy and Robbie is very good at speaking to the players.
“He’s had bits and pieces in terms of chances in the team this season and I don’t think he’s let himself down. He’s got a new contract now so it’s up to him to go on and fulfil his potential. Centre-back isn’t an easy position to force your way into as a kid, but that’s what Jordan has to do now.”
The chance to stake his claim could come this weekend with Wilson suspended for Hearts’ trip to Cowdenbeath. The league is already won and next season is already at the forefront of everyone’s minds at Tynecastle. McGhee more than most, perhaps.