Hearts fans may need to wait five years to see Harry Cochrane at his fully-developed best, according to manager Craig Levein.
Injuries have frustrated the teenager this season and Levein hopes the player and supporters can remain patient.
He believes Cochrane, 18, might not be properly physically developed until the age of 22 or 23. The midfielder’s slight frame leaves him vulnerable in the sometimes brutal Ladbrokes Premiership and Levein is determined to protect his protege at all costs.
A series of injuries have limited Cochrane to just four starts for Hearts this season. He returned to the team for last weekend’s Edinburgh derby against Hibs at Easter Road and will hope to retain his place against Kilmarnock at Tynecastle Park this afternoon.
“Harry has had such a stop-start season. I think he’s had five injuries,” explained Levein. “Part of it is down to the fact he is not the most robust of players. He still has a very light frame so I’m also conscious of not putting him into situations that can lead to him getting injured. I’m waiting on him putting on a bit of beef and strengthening up a little bit to be able to protect himself.
“I’ve been quite careful with him in the second part of the season. Some people have solid frames, and muscle mass comes on quite quickly. Harry has a very light frame so he is going to take a bit of time. It might not be until he’s 22 or 23 that he’s actually strong enough to do everything he wants to do.
“In the meantime, we will just keep working with him in the gym and make sure he is eating all the right things. Then it’s just time and patience. Our nutritionist has been working very closely with Harry and his family to make sure he is eating the right stuff to help him. Training every day helps as well.”
Levein is content not to try and accelerate Cochrane’s progress at Tynecastle Park, especially near the end of a season full of injury problems for the talented midfielder.
“Sometimes you can’t push young players until they are ready,” said Levein. “Harry was injured a lot earlier in the season, so when he is out he isn’t getting the leg work required on the training ground.
“A lot of it is just repetition through training every day, which builds muscle mass in your legs to strengthen you. It just takes time. Some are quicker than others. Adding all the injuries in, it hasn’t been easy for Harry to progress this season.
“His talent is obviously still there and that will just get better. I just need to be careful that I’m not pushing him too hard when he isn’t quite ready to cope. We’ve just been looking after him more than anything else this season.”