The arrivals of Blazej Augustyn, Gavin Reilly and Juanma at Tynecastle this summer may have attracted the most attention, but Hearts demonstrated that they still plan for the future with the arrival of young defender Jahmal Howlett-Mundle.
The 18-year-old centre-back has been signed on his first professional contract as a member of Jack Ross’ development squad after nine years at Crystal Palace. However, the early signs suggest he will be involved with the first team on a competitive basis before too long, as he’s showed up well in the club’s pre-season friendlies.
After an initial week’s trial towards the end of last season, the defender signed on permanently last month and he is clearly relishing the challenge of attempting to kick-start his professional career with a new club in a new city. ”I’m settling in really well,” he told the Evening News. “All the boys have been welcoming and the training has been really good – a lot more intense than I’m used to, but my body’s adapting so it’s been really good so far.
“Edinburgh’s been really nice as well. It wasn’t exactly a wrench to leave [London] – it didn’t work out quite exactly as I’d planned at Palace, but when the opportunity came up to come to Hearts I grabbed it with both hands. My agent got in contact with the club and they were really happy for me to come up for a trial a few months ago – I impressed and got a deal off the back of it.”
While it was a big move for such a young player, there were at least a couple of familiar faces to help ease his transition. “Neil Alexander and Osman Sow were at Palace at the same time as me,” he said, “and they’ve been able to show me around, introduce me to the boys and help me get along with the boys so quickly.
“I did speak to Osman a bit before I came up as well. He had great things to say about the club and said it was a fantastic city. He’s settled here really well.
“I knew a bit about the club before I arrived – obviously everyone knows about the famous 5-1! [the Scottish Cup final win over Hibs in 2012]. The club has a great history and pulled through the hard times of administration and now the club’s on the rise. Jack [Ross] didn’t have to sell the club to me at all – it sold itself.”
Howlett-Mundle has been surprised at how early he’s been involved with the first team. He was included in Robbie Neilson’s squad that travelled to Dublin for a pre-season tour, as well as featuring against Raith Rovers, Dumbarton and in last week’s D&K Challenge Cup tournament in Oban. The teenager hasn’t looked out of place amongst more established team-mates and is sure the experience will stand him in good stead.
“It’s been a great experience,” he said. “I didn’t expect to go with the first team straight away. I’ve played a few games, won the majority, including the tournament in Oban, so it’s been really good so far. I’ve played with Blazej [Augustyn] a couple of times now and he’s been great. He’s really good in and around the dressing room as well helping the boys, especially the younger ones.”
As well as being eager to learn from those around him, this season’s No.30 has his own qualities that he feels can benefit the club. “I’d say I’m a commanding centre-half who likes to read the game. I organise really well, I’m good on the ball and I’m a winner – I’m determined to win and do the best I can for Hearts.”
By design, and in recent seasons due to circumstance, Hearts have a reputation for producing their own young players, which was part of the attraction for Howlett-Mundle. Indeed, he cites team-mate and fellow teenager Jordan McGhee as an example to follow.
“When you look at the average age of the squad at the moment, it’s not much older than about 23, 24 plus a few experienced boys,” he said. “Then you’ve got players like Jordan McGhee, who’s played nearly 50 games in the first team and for Scotland Under-21s and he’s still not even 19. Everyone’s got to take their opportunity – you need to grab it with both hands.”
Coming off the back of an emphatic Championship-winning season, Howlett-Mundle believes he is joining a squad that should be aiming high now that they have returned to the Ladbrokes Premiership. “I think the expectations should be as high as the boys set it,” he added. “Everyone who’s here has great ability so there’s no reason for us not to be aiming high and finish as high up the table as we can.”