Riccarton costs outlined as Hearts use progress plan to drive more talent into their first team

Emerging Hearts youth players have been conspicuous by their absence in recent years, an issue which irks those involved in the Riccarton development process.

Annual running costs for the club’s youth academy reach seven figures when the B team, under-18s and women’s team are factored in. There is a determination from within to ensure such investment is justified. If that case has been difficult to argue of late, there are gradual signs of change.

European debuts for Connor Smith and Finlay Pollock this season preceded six more youth players joining the first-team squad at their Spanish training camp last week. Defenders Arron Darge (19) and Luke Rathie (17), midfielders Aidan Denholm (19) and Macaulay Tait (17), plus goalkeeper Harry Stone (20) and winger Bobbie McLuckie (16) all travelled to La Cala resort aiming to make an impression on manager Robbie Neilson.

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Darge would certainly have done so after wading unequivocally into the Malaga melee against Almeria on Sunday. The teenager's commitment and leadership had to be admired as he charged across to confront Spanish opponents after team-mate Alex Cochrane was knocked to the ground. He doubtless endeared himself to some senior colleagues in the process.

The notoriety didn’t go to his head or anyone else’s. All six youngsters stepped off the return flight at Edinburgh Airport on Wednesday and were ushered straight to Rosewell for Hearts B team’s Lowland League match against Spartans. Five of them were in the starting line-up and left at full-time pushing suitcases as they finally headed home. They were back at Riccarton for B team training on Thursday morning. It is the kind of commitment necessary to make the grade in professional football.

“What we’re doing here is trying to create players to play in the first team,” explained Steven Naismith, Hearts B team manager. “The six boys all came back from Spain wanting to be involved against Spartans. When they were away, every one of them texted me saying: ‘Can I play on Wednesday?’ That’s exactly what you want. The older ones in the group are very professional and the young guys coming in from the under-18s are soaking all of that up. As you go up, things get sharper and quicker so your mind needs to be at that level or you aren’t going to cut it.”

Darge and Rathie are honing their central-defensive talents into a potentially useful partnership which dealt with Spartans’ direct approach well. Denholm and Tait are an energetic and thoughtful midfield pairing, whilst hopes are high that Stone can become Hearts’ first-choice goalkeeper in time. McLuckie’s lightning pace and direct running on the left flank mark him out as another for the future. Ultimately, the measure of progress is permanent promotion to the first team.

“Yes, that is definitely it,” said Naismith. “I came into this season and the biggest driver for me in terms of producing young players was the competitiveness at this [Lowland League] level. The players want to win because there is a league table showing how they are performing. For me, it’s about the progression and getting these boys through to the first team.

Hearts have a progression plan to get players into their first team.

“The young ones getting involved with first-team training, going away to the training camp in Spain, that’s invaluable. Every one of them have mentioned how much quicker everything is at first-team level. That’s what they need to get to. It’s definitely a measure of progress within the group – how many can get through into first-team set-up? Then, ultimately, can they play at that level?

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“Over the last week, this has had a knock-on effect. It was unbelievable how young our team was against Tranent on Saturday because we had those players away in Spain. We brought boys in from the under-18s who all played. They came away thinking: ‘That was actually good and I enjoyed it. I can actually do it at this level.’ That breeds competition, so the process works.”

Promoting from within becomes evermore difficult when Aston Villa lure Ewan Simpson away or Rangers open talks with James Wilson with the intention of doing likewise. Naismith wants to keep this crop together, acknowledging that Hearts’ youth productivity rate has not been acceptable over the last decade, excepting the odd Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson or Callum Paterson.

“This needs to be the way it happens,” he continued. “For the last ten years, have Hearts produced a decent enough calibre of young player? No. This will give them the best opportunity. Ultimately, it’s down to the boys. That's what I say to them all. I can give advice based on what I’ve learned from football but they will pick it up or they won’t.

Hearts teenager Arron Darge.
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“A lot of what you see in games comes from them. In my opinion, football is fundamentally played by instinct. You can have structure, you want overloads and do all these things, but the player needs to be intelligent to know how to do it and when to do it.”

Darge’s attitude hasn’t gone unnoticed after his intervention in the Almeria brawl. “The biggest thing it will have done is given him right good credit with the first-team boys,” said Naismith. “They’ll be saying: ‘I love that from him.’ It helps you bond with them, and that ultimately gives him confidence. I remember when I was young, you do one good thing and the players start talking about it. You go away thinking: ‘That’s quality. I like the feeling of that, so I want to do it more.’”

So what went through Naismith’s mind when he saw one of his own teenage players racing to get involved in an on-field tussle? “To be honest, I was looking at all the guys who weren’t in it so I could use that against them. There’s a few of the backroom staff not involved. I’ll be picking them up on that,” he laughed. “I think the pictures probably make it look worse than it actually was.”

The bigger picture is that Hearts are promoting from within hoping one or two of these promising academy graduates can justify all the fuss.