Who are the Hearts youngsters pushing for a place in next season's first team?
A number of fresh-faced teenagers will front up at Riccarton next month dreaming of Premiership football with Hearts.
Pre-season training begins on June 15 and there are vacancies needing filled in the club’s first-team squad. Some will be taken by new signings with a few open for ambitious academy graduates to impress.
After a season when Hearts endured criticism for not blooding enough kids, the task ahead is somewhat daunting for even the most talented prodigy. Euan Henderson and Andy Irving were the only two recent youth products to feature regularly in the Championship-winning campaign.
There will still be a lengthy queue eager to showcase their credentials to manager Robbie Neilson and his coaching staff over the summer. Riccarton youngsters have all been told that a platform is there for them to push into the senior group.
The Edinburgh club carry a proud tradition of developing their own talent: From John Robertson and Gary Mackay in the 1980s, through Gary Locke and Allan Johnston in the 1990s, plus the likes of Craig Gordon, Christophe Berra, Callum Paterson and Sam Nicholson since the turn of the century. It is a historical theme at Tynecastle Park.
Ambitions as a newly-promoted Premiership team include a berth in next season’s top six, so the next generation must be able to cope with demands. Players like Connor Smith, Cammy Logan, Chris Hamilton, Scott McGill, Harry Stone and Finlay Pollock will all come into contention.
Opportunities for young players were limited during the season just ended, partly due to restrictions on groups mixing in biosecure Covid bubbles. Those issues removed, the theory is that there should be more scope to develop young players.
“There are a few younger ones with a chance of pushing in and around the squad,” explained manager Robbie Neilson to the Evening News.
“Cammy and Connor are out on loan at Cove at the moment, which is good for them. They are in and out of the team and not playing a massive amount of games, but just having the experience of being there is great for them.
“A few young players will step up and I’ve said to them all that pre-season is a massive time for them. They need to make sure they’re fit. Quite a number of them are in three days a week at the moment so they should come back in good condition.
“In pre-season games, they have to give themselves a chance to really push and get in that first team. “There is always one you look at when they come back and think: ‘He’s really come on and he’s ready to make that step. You always get one.
“That’s why we had that conversation before they went away to get the message across that this is their chance. Hopefully we’ll see one of two of them make that jump over pre-season.”
So what might the prospects be for those with aspirations of making the cut?
Attacking midfielder, 19, on loan at Cove Rangers until their season ends. Tynecastle contract runs until May 2023. Already played four times for Hearts’ first team in addition to loan spells at Cowdenbeath, Arbroath and Cove. Plenty technique and drive to make an impact if given a run of games. Smith’s energy and attacking instinct are exactly the attributes fans want to see in Gorgie.
Right-back, 19, on loan at Cove Rangers until their season ends. Tynecastle contract runs until May 2023. One senior appearance for the Edinburgh club back in 2018. Rated as a good prospect by Neilson and coaching staff, hence his new three-year deal last October. Will struggle to dislodge Michael Smith to become first-choice right-back and Jamie Brandon will also provide competition once fit again. Logan may need to look at another loan to play regularly next year.
Defender/midfielder, 19. Spent this season on loan at Dumbarton and Stirling Albion, managing 21 appearances in total. Tynecastle contract runs until May 2022. Converted from a centre-back into a holding midfielder this term and displayed an aptitude for the role in both loan spells. Reads the game well and has both the composure and ability to play a passing style. Will look to step into the senior squad and fill any void created if the aforementioned Irving does not extend his contract.
Midfielder, 19. Managed four appearances for Hearts this season after being promoted from the under-18 squad by Neilson. Tynecastle contract runs until May 2022. Industrious midfielder with a lot of potential. The raw aspects of his game should get ironed out over time, although he is one of many midfielders competing for game time.
Goalkeeper, 19. Delivered a series of commanding displays this season on loan at Spartans and, latterly, Albion Rovers. Tynecastle contract runs until May 2023. Perhaps the biggest asset within the Riccarton youth academy right now. Been training with the first team every day for more than a year but won't play ahead of the vastly-experienced Craig Gordon. Will be involved over pre-season before a decision is made on whether to loan him out.
Attacking midfielder, 16. Recently made a first-team breakthrough to become the youngest player to feature in this season’s Scottish Championship. Tynecastle contract runs until May 2023. Another energetic youngster who likes to break from midfield into the penalty area to score. Pollock can also operate out wide. Still extremely young so will be expected to play mainly at under-18 or reserve level – if a reserve league resumes – next term.