Pressure is off Hearts U-20s as they aim to scalp Saints

Andy Kirk has taken over from Jon Daly as under-20s coach. Picture: Greg Macvean
Andy Kirk has taken over from Jon Daly as under-20s coach. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Andy Kirk is eager to stamp his own authority as Hearts’ new Under-20 coach by springing a surprise in Paisley tomorrow.

After a midweek 4-1 win against rivals Hibs, the Riccarton youth team face St Mirren in the second round of the Irn-Bru Challenge Cup. Kirk has told his players they are under no pressure.

Jon Daly’s promotion to first-team coach leaves the former Hearts striker in charge of the Under-20s for what is a huge cup tie. They beat Highland League Formartine United in the last minute of extra-time in the competition’s first round. Their reward is tomorrow’s trip to St Mirren Park, where they will look to cause a major upset.

Kirk is relishing the chance to put his own philosophy in place within the Riccarton academy. “I’ve been in here working every day alongside Jon for the last year and a half. There’s a great group of staff in here who are prepared to go above and beyond because they love the job they’re doing,” he told the Evening News.

“The changes have been great with Jon moving up to the first team. He’s done really well with them over the last few weeks. It gives an opportunity now for me to lead the Under-20s and put my own stamp on things and bring my own ideas into play. That’s a good thing for a coach when you get to try things, so I’m delighted.

“The whole point of this competition is to let younger boys experience real football at senior level. It’s going to be tough but it will be a good experience. St Mirren have players who have played professional football for years so it’s a good draw for us because it will test us.

“It’s a big tie but that’s what you want. Nobody expects you to beat St Mirren but it’s a game where we can hopefully go out and express ourselves. There’s no pressure on us, really.”

Ironically, the St Mirren manager Jack Ross worked with many of the Hearts youngsters during his time as the club’s Under-20 coach. He left in October 2015 to be replaced by Daly, who has now been succeeded by Kirk during a reshuffle as Craig Levein became manager.

“Jack Ross has done a marvellous job at St Mirren so we know what we’re up against,” added Kirk, who can use two overage players as per the rules of the Irn-Bru Cup. Midfielder Angus Beith and forward Dario Zanatta – now on loan at Raith – were the two used against Formartine.

“We used them in the last game so we’ll have a quick look through the squad and see who is available and in what position. Then we will see what experience we can use,” explained Kirk.

“Certain boys have been on loan and have experience of league football, so they can bring that into the game for us. It’s going to be a hard game but we have good players here. If they do things right and work as a team then you never know. Football is a funny game.”

However, the Northern Irishman issued a warning to his players not to repeat the mistakes they made up north. They found themselves 2-0 down to Formartine and needed a dramatic recovery – inspired by two-goal Zanatta before Harry Paton’s late winner.

“The first half was really poor. We were going long and we didn’t compete well, which is unlike us. We were 2-0 down at half-time,” said Kirk. “We sorted a few things out at half-time and it was like a switch being thrown. They were back doing things they’re good at.

“We got a goal back early, then missed a penalty, hit the post, then got an equaliser in the last minute. If you see the pictures, the celebrations from the boys were great. Then we got a third goal in extra-time. Winning the game was great for the camaraderie of the squad. Showing that character builds confidence.

“However, they have to understand that the first-half performance could’ve put them out of the competition. There’s a lot to learn for the boys at this age.”

Hearts have a full squad to choose from for the tie with the exception of the suspended Kyle Smith. He received a second yellow card towards the end of the Formartine tie for re-entering the pitch to celebrate Paton’s late winner after being substituted.