Jack Hamilton: Strong Hearts, whirlwind year, sand before gravy
Jack Hamilton knows it's a time for strong Hearts. Defeat to Rangers was insipid and drawing with Partick Thistle at home was infuriating. Tonight the Edinburgh club head to Dundee eager to furnish new head coach Ian Cathro with his first managerial victory.
Mental strength and bravery are two of the commodities Hamilton speaks of, mindful that supporters were audibly restless at Tynecastle last weekend. Even the goalkeeper wasn’t immune to criticism. Some of his clearances drew moans and groans from home fans on a day that ended with loud jeers at full-time.
Tonight is an opportunity for the team to atone collectively, with further home games due next week against Kilmarnock and Aberdeen. Public carping is a new thing for 22-year-old Hamilton given this is his first season as first-choice keeper. He already seems mature enough to handle it with a strong group behind him.
“It’s a new experience for myself but it’s part and parcel of football all over the world. If something isn’t going right, then you’re going to get a wee bit. That’s normal,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “If you don’t do something right, there’s no point hiding away. You’ve got to come out and do it again and be brave.
“You have a strong bunch of people round about you here to help you and support you. That’s good because it can be tough at times. You’ve got to be mentally strong. At the end of the day, it’s a game of football and you’ve played thousands of them over the years while you were growing up. You just need to take it as it comes and be brave.
“There’s no point in stopping what you’re doing. You simply have to keep doing the right things and you’ll get better. Things will start to come off for you if you believe in that.
“Tonight is a great opportunity to get a win and the manager will be thinking that as well. The last couple of games haven’t gone our way. We should’ve picked up more points than we did. All the boys are together so we need to go out and put in a performance tonight. Firstly, we need three points. Take nothing away from Dundee, they’re a tough team. They’re down near the bottom but they’re only a couple of wins away from jumping up four or five places, so they’ll be hoping to get a win.”
Hamilton would never complain about how 2016 panned out as it draws to a close. It has been the most monumental year of his life, after all. He has progressed from second-choice keeper to No.1 at Hearts and established himself in Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad.
“It’s been a good year. It just shows you how quick things in football can change,” he reflected. “I started off last year not getting any game time, although it was good being involved in a top side which was doing well in the league. At the same time, you want to play football.
“You train all week to get the reward of playing football at the end of the week. It’s hard when you don’t get to play. I was lucky enough to get the chance to go in and play from Robbie [Neilson] at the start of the season. Hopefully that continues.”
Indeed, Hamilton owes much to his former manager. “The way Robbie treated me, from when he first came in as under-20 coach through to the day he left, he was absolutely excellent. He’d give you everything and he’d help you so much. He was really good with me.”
Neilson’s decision to propel the young keeper into the spotlight in June means he also faces the prospect of playing through Christmas for the first time. That means none of the festive food so many will gorging on over the next week or so.
“It will be a little bit different. It’s not a different mindset because I’ve always been involved in games at this time of year. I was on the bench before, preparing like I was going to play. This time I hopefully will be playing. I’ll be preparing properly – that means not much turkey.
“All the family will be sitting there with their eight courses, turkey and all the trimmings, but I’ll be sticking to the normal routine. I know it’s Chrismtas but we’ve got some massive games coming up.
“I’ll be eating chicken and other dry stuff as usual. No gravy, just dry. Sand to go on top of it,” laughed Hamilton. “This is why you play football, to be involved in these games. If it means missing a Christmas dinner or two, I’m not bothered at all. Everything is geared towards football, to get the best performance from yourself and get yourself to the top.”
The desire for progress isn’t likely to end. “I’m learning all the time and trying to take everything in,” continued Hamilton. “There are always things which aren’t great but you just go into training and try to fix them. You’re never going to be perfect, it’s about progressing.
Cathro hasn’t changed anything in terms of the daily workout for goalkeepers at Riccarton. What he has done is instil confidence in Hamilton and his understudy, the Swede Viktor Noring.
“Goalkeeping is goalkeeping but the new manager is really good at talking to you. He keeps you involved with his ideas and it’s about trying to marshall the back four and keep everything right. We also have Paul Gallacher [goalkeeping coach] there, who is excellent. He’s been a massive help to me this year, on and off the park. He’s been there and done it plenty of times so I can sit down with him and go through things.
“Viktor isn’t there to sit on the bench, to be honest with you. The minute things aren’t right with me or the minute he gets his chance, he’ll want to go in and play. He’s a brilliant big lad and both of us get on really well.
“We’ve got that competitive edge between us in training. He’s desperate to play and I’m desperate to play but there’s also a good friendship there.”