If Sean McKirdy’s release from Hearts in May was surprising, the decision to rebuild his career at Hamilton Academical was entirely logical. Almost predictable, in fact. The teenager coveted a club with a clear pathway from youth to senior football after leaving Riccarton, and Accies’ reputation set them apart.
The SuperSeal Stadium, as New Douglas Park is now known due to sponsorship, provides McKirdy with a platform to develop and show he can handle himself in the Scottish Premiership. If he happens to prove Hearts wrong for letting him go in the process, he will allow himself a wry smile.
He made six first-team appearances for the Edinburgh club over two seasons – the last of which was away at Inverness on September 11, 2015 – and was praised for his prodigious talent. It came as a shock when he was told he had no future at Tynecastle at the end of last season. After deliberating for much of the summer, McKirdy signed a one-year contract with Hamilton in August.
Monday night’s league match between the two clubs comes too early for the midfielder. He has just recovered from a hamstring problem and won’t play. He has been restricted to under-20 outings so far but knows a first-team opportunity will come.
Having watched both James McArthur and James McCarthy go from Hamilton midfielder to seasoned internationalist via the English Premier League, McKirdy knows his new stage in Lanarkshire attracts plenty attention. What he must do is thrive on it. Even new team-mate Ali Crawford can offer inspiration having been released by Hearts in his teens for being too small.
“Hamilton pride themselves on that focus of bringing young boys through to the first team. It’s really down to me but they’ve given me the platform to do that,” said the 18-year-old, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“I had one or two offers and that’s why I signed quite late on in pre-season. I was moving from a club like Hearts which was brilliant in terms of facilities and training. I felt the next move I made had to be somewhere which had that pathway for me to push on into a first team. One or two other Premiership clubs were interested and they had just as good a set-up as Hamilton but not the same youth progression.
“I joined quite late in pre-season and I’ve been injured recently so I’ve only played in the under-20s.
“Having seen me over the years, Hamilton said they were impressed and saw me as a player with potential to be on the fringes of the first team. They felt I could break in over the next couple of years because they said I was a player they liked. They see me playing slightly differently to I did at Hearts.”
He has the capability to play slightly further forward than he did in Edinburgh – something McArthur and McCarthy did before heading south to join Wigan Athletic for six and seven-figure fees respectively.
“Those two are both centre midfielders so there aren’t any better examples,” said McKirdy. “Greg Docherty is in Hamilton’s first team just now and he’s only a year and a half older than me. He’s already played 60 first-team games. Stephen Hendrie got a move down south after playing in Hamilton’s first team.”
McKirdy candidly admits it took time to digest the news he wasn’t wanted by Hearts any longer. He featured in pre-season friendlies in summer 2015 – most notably at Preston North End – and seemed destined to make 2015/16 his breakthrough campaign. He then started League Cup ties against Arbroath and Forfar, played as substitute in the league against Partick Thistle before starting away at Inverness. That Friday night game on September 11 last year was to be his last appearance in a Hearts shirt.
He dropped back into the under-20 squad but still felt confident regarding his future until one fateful meeting with team management towards the end of the season. A graduate of the Riccarton youth academy, a Scotland youth internationalist at under-15, under-16 and under-17 level, and also one of the club’s brightest prospects, he was now surplus to requirements.
“I was surprised myself. I said that to Hearts,” revealed McKirdy. “I’ve seen boys in the past who would admit themselves that, prior to their contract ending, it didn’t look good for them. Although I had dropped away from the first-team picture last season, I was still playing for the under-20s every week. Others who weren’t got new deals, so it was a bit of a shock.
“The main thing I got from Hearts was they didn’t see a pathway into the first team. Since I’d been around the first team in the past, they felt there was no point in me staying around to be an under-20 player.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a shock. The way football works, everyone hears about these things. It was one of the ones over the years that most people have been surprised about and commented on. You don’t often see such a dramatic fall from grace.”
Was height a factor in the decision? McKirdy stands 5ft 7ins tall and relies on outstanding technique and intelligence because he doesn’t have the benefit of a great physical presence.
“I would never say that was the sole reason, although I certainly don’t think it worked in my favour,” he stated. “It’s a question for them to answer. That was another thing in my mind when I looked at Hamilton. Height is no issue for them, neither is physical stature if you look at Ali Crawford and some of the under-20 players.
“That aspect was something I looked at because, unfortunately, you still get some people in Scottish football who feel height makes a big difference. I don’t agree with that.
“I’d be first to admit that getting told my contract wasn’t being renewed wasn’t nice. The two weeks after that felt rubbish. I also think, if I ever make it to a good level, it will feel all the sweeter having had that setback and having to battle through it.”
He has already recovered to an extent by securing a move to Hamilton and staying in Scotland’s top flight. Now he must force his way into manager Martin Canning’s plans and ensure his 12-month contract is renewed before it expires.
“Before I got injured, I played for six or seven weeks in the under-20s and showed consistently good form. It was my best form for a while. I want to keep playing well in the 20s, start getting into the first-team squad and progress from there.
“I’m just back from injury so next Monday’s game against Hearts is too early for me. I’m hoping to play part of the under-20 game next Tuesday against Kilmarnock so I should be fully fit again soon. Then I want to push on and try to make an impression.”