Hearts’ new-look squad will arrive in Ireland tomorrow morning with some highly-regarded teenagers aiming to make their presence felt among their more senior colleagues.
As well as replenishing the first-team squad with high-profile names like Christophe Berra and Kyle Lafferty this summer, the Tynecastle club also intend to evolve by filtering the best of their burgeoning academy players into the mix.
Rory Currie and Jamie Brandon made a positive impression last season and are currently among those at the front of the queue for prominent involvement in Ian Cathro’s plans in the upcoming campaign.
While all eyes among the 1500 travelling supporters were on new recruits Berra, Cole Stockton and Rafal Grzelak in yesterday’s pre-season friendly away to Livingston, it was the two former Rangers youngsters – the only teenagers in an otherwise experienced starting XI – who made the biggest impact as Hearts kicked off their pre-season campaign with a victory over the Championship new boys that was more comfortable than the 1-0 scoreline implies.
Currie, playing on the right of an attacking trio in a 3-4-3 formation, was the best player on the field and it was his first-half surge up the centre of the park and clever through-ball to Don Cowie that paved the way for Stockton to fire in off the underside of the bar and mark his debut with the only goal of the game.
Currie, 19, who featured nine times in the second half of last season – once from the start – looked hungry to make an impression and clearly senses a chance to muscle in on the act alongside more senior attackers like Lafferty, Esmael Goncalves and Stockton this season.
“I’m feeling sharp and I feel like I could do a job this season,” Currie told the Evening News. “It was brilliant to be in the starting XI because that’s what you strive for. There’s not been any talk about me going on loan, so for now I’m just trying to force my way into the starting eleven. It’s brilliant to see a guy like Kyle Lafferty come in. It gives you a wee boost to try and push on and play beside players like that. It’d be exciting to go in and play with the likes of Isma and Kyle.”
Currie also relished playing alongside his boyhood friend Brandon. After making a positive impact on his first-team debut in the 2-0 defeat away to Celtic on the final day of last season, the 19-year-old right-back again looked the part in West Lothian. An ankle injury to Liam Smith, which will sideline him until late July, means Brandon has a chance to become the main challenger to newly-recruited Northern Irish right-back Michael Smith.
“It was brilliant to have Jamie playing behind me because we’re best pals,” said Currie, a central striker who thrived playing wide of target man Stockton and in front of wing-back Brandon yesterday. “I used to play wide when I was younger so I’m used to it. I quite enjoy playing wide, as well as playing striker.”
Currie’s emergence was one of the few positives of a dismal second half to last season. He has been thrilled at the level of first-team exposure he has enjoyed so far.
“Coming to Hearts has been brilliant for me – I couldn’t have asked for a better move,” he said. “Hopefully, I can keep going the way I’m going and keep getting into the team.”
This week’s trip to the Emerald Isle gives Currie and other young hopefuls a chance to stake a claim for a place in Cathro’s plans this season. The Hearts squad, who fly out of Edinburgh early on Monday morning, will be based just outside Dublin until Friday and will play a friendly against St Patrick’s Athletic on Wednesday evening. They then travel north to Belfast on Friday before facing Linfield at Windsor Park the following day.
“It’ll be a good experience training in Ireland and playing a couple of good games,” said Currie. “It’ll be good to get to know the new guys and get a good team bond.”
Of Hearts’ six new signings, only returning captain Berra, Grzelak – the powerful Polish left-back who hit the post in the first half – and Stockton featured against Livingston. Lafferty, Smith and Ashley Smith-Brown are all in line to wear the maroon jersey for the first time across the Irish Sea this week. Their absence, as well as that of Jamie Walker, Arnaud Djoum, Bjorn Johnsen, Aaron Hughes and Liam Smith for a variety of reasons on Saturday, allowed a batch of other academy graduates to come off the bench for some second-half game time.
The youngsters – the majority of whom came on in the 63rd minute – looked in their element as Hearts dominated after the break. Stockton, Ali Roy, Euan Henderson and Conor Sammon – back following a loan stint at Kilmarnock in the second half of last season – all went close to giving the Premiership side the second goal their play would have merited.
Cathro was content with what he saw from his side as they barely gave Livingston a clear sight of goal all afternoon.
“It was okay for us,” said the head coach. “It gave us a chance to feel the sharpness, feel a wee bit of chaos going on, and get ourselves adjusted and reacting to things again. It was a reasonable game for us.”
Livingston: Trialist, Halkett, Lithgow, Gallagher, Mullin, Pittman, Jacobs, Byrne, De Vita, Mackin, Mullen. Subs: Brown, Peters, Hamilton, Knox, Trialist, Trialist, Trialist.
Hearts (3-4-3): J Hamilton; McGhee, Nowak, Berra; Brandon, Buaben, Cowie, Grzelak; Currie, Stockton, Goncalves. Subs (all used): Noring, Sammon, Beith, Martin, Kitchen, Roy, Moore, Petkov, Henderson, Cochrane, C Hamilton.
Referee: Alan Newlands.