Young Andy Irving lacks nothing in gumption as he declares himself ready to fill Hearts’ midfield void.
Arnaud Djoum’s wretched Achilles injury robs the Edinburgh club of a key protagonist in their quest for European football. Irving is only 17 but is eager to step into the breach.
That he would be replacing a 28-year-old seasoned professional and Africa Cup of Nations-winning Cameroon internationalist does not seem to faze him. Well, not that much. Irving is simply eager to maximise his own game time.
The midfielder has enjoyed two starts and one substitute appearance for Hearts since being recalled last month from a loan spell at Berwick Rangers. He came on when Djoum was stretchered off against Ross County last weekend and, although saddened by his colleague’s injury, wants to put together a run of games. By kick-off tomorrow, he will have gone from unfashionable Shielfield Park to the intensity of a 50,000 Ibrox crowd inside a few short weeks.
“I feel ready. I’m confident enough to do it and I believe I can do it,” said Irving, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “In the two games I played before Ross County, I think I held my own. I could have done better up in Dingwall but I learned from it. If I go into the team again, I’ll take that experience in with me. I believe I can hold my own at this level.
“I’d definitely like to stake a claim if it brings me more game time. Harry Cochrane is coming back and other boys in midfield are playing well. There isn’t a guaranteed pathway into the first team. You have to keep working to get an opportunity. If I work hard, hopefully that happens.”
Feedback from manager Craig Levein has been encouraging so for. “He has spoken to me after each of the games and asked me how I thought I’d done. He gave me his thoughts regarding what I could do better,” explained Irving. “Last Saturday, he spoke to me and said the communication could be better before Ross County’s goal.
“If you watch it, I think we’ve won the ball back so I’ve turned the other way [away from goalscorer Jason Naismith]. The gaffer said me and Demi [Demetri Mitchell] should have spoken, then one of us picks him up and it solves the problem. He also said I need to get closer to people in midfield, which is something I need to work on for this level. I need to put opponents under pressure.”
He would be entitled to feel the strain himself, never mind applying it to others. “I don’t feel under pressure. I look at it thinking I’m in there for a reason. I believe I’m there because somebody thinks I can deal with it and I’m good enough. I don’t feel under any strain. I just try to do what I’m good at and perform as best I can.
“Obviously, there is expectation. If you’re playing at Tynecastle, there is an expectation on you to play well. You can’t afford to be slack in front of all the Hearts fans. I feel I’m confident enough to deal with those things.”
Might he feel even a hint of pressure walking out of the Ibrox tunnel to face Rangers in what would be only his fourth Ladbrokes Premiership match?
“Yeah, it might be different in front of 50,000 fans,” laughed Irving. “It would be another surreal moment, walking out in front of such a big crowd. We’ll just need to wait and see what happens. I’d love to do it.”
Levein’s penchant for nurturing youngsters may well see Irving thrown into the lion’s den in Glasgow. If not, 16-year-old Cochrane could return from injury. Or there’s Anthony McDonald, who is the same age. Or 17-year-old Euan Henderson. The list goes on.
“Hendo and Ant did well when they came on last week, and Harry has been brilliant when he’s played as well. We’re only 16 and 17 years old and we’ve played quite a lot. Hopefully we’ll play even more. I just think it’s great that the gaffer is giving us opportunities. We’re only going to get better because of it and, in the future, it will stand us in good stead.”
When you mix with established first-team names every day, you can’t help but pick up their habits and winning mentality. Irving underlines this point when asked for his thoughts on last week’s 1-1 draw in Dingwall.
“I think it’s a game we should be winning. The goal we gave away wasn’t great, especially given our record. I believe we should have won but we probably didn’t do enough. Ross County piled on the pressure and took advantage when they scored. They could have scored again, so we’ll take a draw.”
Irving is also learning to be more self-analytical, and even critical where necessary, when he reflects on games for Hearts. His performance in the Highlands left him unsatisfied and he is now looking for some improvement.
“I’m still enjoying coming in and training every day with the first team. Getting on last week was brilliant again, although I don’t believe I had my best game. I could’ve done better. I do feel myself getting better and getting physically stronger each day so I’m loving it.”