For such a specialised position, Hearts have been fortunate to enjoy more than their fair share of quality goalkeepers in recent years. They could well have another on their hands should Jack Hamilton continue to progress.
The Scotland Under-21 international has some big gloves to fill if he is to eventually take his place as the Jambos’ No.1. Since Jim Cruickshank in the 1960s and 70s, the Tynecastle club have made a habit of signing or producing their own keepers who have gone on to excel at Tynecastle. From the long-serving Henry Smith, to the £400k bargain that was Antti Niemi, record £9million transfer-earning Craig Gordon through to Marian Kello, Jamie MacDonald and current custodian Neil Alexander, goalkeeper has traditionally been an area of the pitch where the Tynecastle team has been particularly strong.
Hamilton, who has been a professional with Hearts since 2011, has steadily risen through the ranks and now finds himself likely to be the club’s second choice this coming season. Last year’s No.2 Scott Gallacher will be allowed to move on in search of first team football, which would leave Hamilton as Alexander’s understudy. Regardless of Gallacher’s situation however, the man from Denny is firmly focused on self improvement and continuing to learn his trade.
“Gally’s still a Hearts player and I still need to work as hard as ever and try and push whatever the outcome is,” said the 21-year-old. “I’m my own person and I need to progress myself and look to get better with every single training session and every game so I just need to worry about myself at the moment. This pre-season has been good and progressing from that.”
Although his education as a player is ongoing, his first examination as a top-team goalkeeper could not have been sterner. Following injuries to Alexander and Gallacher during a 2-1 win over former club Rangers on the opening day of last season, Hamilton was recalled from a loan spell at Stenhousemuir for the following week’s Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle. Despite signing former Motherwell keeper Lee Hollis as emergency cover, Neilson showed faith in Hamilton, handing him his competitive senior debut. Hamilton conceded a first-half penalty, which was then missed by Hibs captain Liam Craig, and he then went on to help Hearts win 2-1 and is an experience he still draws on for a psychological boost.
“What a week that was!” recalled Hamilton. “From Stenny one week to playing in the Edinburgh derby the next, that was an unbelievable experience. I took great confidence from that, playing in such a massive game, and I went in to more games a wee bit more relaxed having played in that. If I could play in it then, I knew I could play in it again, it’s one of the biggest games and you won’t get a better atmosphere than the Edinburgh derby. Even after that, it was still about looking to progress in every session, looking at everything I did and taking it forward from there.”
The emphatic nature of Hearts’ Championship title win would have been pleasing enough in itself, but it also afforded Hamilton further exposure to first team football as the season went on. “It was brilliant that we got it wrapped up so early and I got the opportunity to play a few games,” he said. “As I keep saying, it’s all about learning, getting the games in and then preparing for the next one.”
What has certainly been of benefit to Hamilton is Neil Alexander’s influence. Alexander signed for the club last year in a player/coach role and Hamilton intends to take full advantage of being able to work with a keeper of such high calibre.
“Having Neilly here, he’s played in UEFA Cup finals – what a guy to have in front of you and learn from,” said Hamilton. “His experience is unbelievable. You can just watch him and learn from him right away – the way he controls the back four, he’s so calm and composed. He’s brilliant that way and helps you a lot as well. He’s a team-mate to me, but he’s also a coach, so you get that thing where there’s a time to work and there’s a time to play, so it’s good that we can have a bit of banter.”
While taking on board all he can from Alexander, Hamilton is quick to acknowledge the players and staff who preceded the former Rangers and Crystal Palace man. He has worked with some talented keepers in his four years as a pro, but reserved special praise for a man now coaching on the other side of Edinburgh at Hibs.
“The big one for me was Alan Combe being here,” he revealed. “It was me, Comber, Jamie MacDonald and Mark Ridgers and the four of us got on really well and I learned a lot off them anyway, but Comber pushed us a lot.”
Hamilton remains close with former team-mate MacDonald, with the pair and their respective partners holidaying together in Disneyland during the close season. Hamilton is looking forward to catching up with his mate soon after MacDonald signed a three year deal with Kilmarnock, reuniting with former manager Gary Locke. “I can’t wait to see him again!” laughed Hamilton. “I’m sure I’ll get a wee bit of a laugh with him – when we played Falkirk last season I was in the team so it’ll be good to play against him again.”