Pilmar Smith recalls how Sir Alex was glad to help Hearts begin nurturing young talent

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VLADIMIR ROMANOV will no longer invest millions in Hearts because he wants youth development to be the club’s lifeblood.

This places an ever-brightening spotlight upon Riccarton, the training base where young players are honed and readied for a future in maroon. The majority shareholder has fallen out of love with football and, whilst still willing to support Hearts financially, he will not allow them to drink the well dry at Ukio Bankas Investment Group. Transfer fees for players have long since stopped. Youth is the future, according to Romanov’s latest website statement.

Hearts’ youth programme has always been regarded as healthy and productive ever since it was established in the early 1990s. However, its roots lie not with a Tynecastle icon such as Wallace Mercer or Alex MacDonald, its inspiration stems from none other than the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson.

In 1991, just as football’s transfer market was entering a stratosphere far outwith the reach of the average club, Mercer sanctioned a trip to Manchester for his vice chairman, Pilmar Smith. The purpose was to study in detail the youth system at Manchester United, which Ferguson had totally overhauled in the five years since swapping Pittodrie for Old Trafford.

Smith, already an enthusiast for youth development in football, returned north bristling with excitement and put in place foundations for the Hearts Youth Development Committee.

“We had money in those days and Wallace wanted to do everything right,” Smith explained to the Evening News. “He asked me: ‘Who’s got the best youth development in the country? Who should we go and study?’ The best in Scotland at the time was Jim McLean, but he wasn’t going to tell us anything.

“The others were Brian Clough, who I didn’t know personally, and Arsenal always had good youngsters. Then there was Alex Ferguson, who is a good friend of mine. So Wallace said we should go and study Manchester United if we wanted to learn from the best.

“Fergie was great. I went down to Old Trafford and spent time with him at The Cliff, which was where United trained in those days. He showed me the whole system United had and told me what we should do. He took me to Old Trafford and spent a lot of time with me. I came back to Edinburgh and tried to put Fergie’s ideas into operation. He set the standards for youth development at Hearts.

“I had told Wallace for years about the merits of youth development. In the early days we concentrated on the older players, the Willie Johnstons and Jimmy Bones, who were great. They were experienced players who had come from the Old Firm and had the right habits.

“The previous administration signed John Robertson, Gary Mackay and Davie Bowman, and of course they came through. But I kept telling Wallace that the youth policy was the way ahead, so I was eventually put in charge of it.

“We started up the Hearts Youth Development Committee, and everything took off from there. Joe Jordan was manager at the time and he was involved in starting the whole thing off. He was very good in that sense and knew the importance of having a youth policy.

“Hibs had something like a 500 Club and the funds from that went into youth development, which worked well for them. Joe said that if they could do it, then so should we. We set up the first youth development committee and got representatives from the shareholders, the supporters’ federation and guys who were members of the executive club.

“Some of the original committee are still involved. There’s no doubt in my mind that youth development is the way ahead. It’s the most important aspect of a club.”

Romanov is now a wholehearted subscriber to Smith’s theory. Around £60 million has gone into Hearts’ playing staff and operational costs over the last five years, but that can no longer be sustained in such austere times by a club in debt to the tune of £36m.

“For seven years I keep hoping that in the country that is the cradle of football they will start respecting the game and stop taking the mickey out of the game itself and the people who are trying to fight for it, but it’s like asking the mafia for remorse,” said Romanov in his latest statement.

“There is only one solution left, to turn our attention to the products of our football academy in the hope that this situation will at some point and somehow improve by itself.”

Smith reserves a degree of sympathy for the owner: “Romanov tried. He poured money in, not always sensibly, and he did reach for the sky. He gets a lot of opposition from officialdom, the media, and he doesn’t always help himself with some of his statements. But I’ve never doubted that he meant the best for Hearts. Unfortunately it just hasn’t worked out that way.”

Although perhaps concerned at just how prudent Romanov may become as he attempts to sell Hearts, supporters will be naturally excited at the prospect of more academy pupils graduating to senior level.

“I’m a believer that, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” said Smith. “Some managers and coaches choose not to bring young players into the side, but I think most would. If the player was good enough and could play in the first team then the system can be very useful.

“I’m a big fan of some of the young lads at Tynecastle just now. Ryan McGowan is a smashing player. Scott Robinson would be in my team. We forget that Eggert Jonsson is still just a youngster. He would be first in my team every week. The players are there, it’s just a case of bringing them through. Youth development is crucial to any club. I’ve said for years that our youth games aren’t advertised well enough. You need to look on the internet to find out the fixtures. Well, not everyone looks on the internet. Fans like to see players in the youth team, they can identify with them there and then they see those boys coming through into the first team. It’s a connection and that’s a big part of it.”

Players like Jonsson, Lee Wallace and Andy Driver came of age in the Hearts youth teams. Riccarton’s importance only increases if Romanov is demanding most of the first-team squad is sourced from there.

“The coaches at Riccarton have such an important role to play now. They have to keep bringing the young lads through. I think they are doing a great job and I’m right behind them,” continued Smith.

“There’s no doubt developing your own players gives the club more sense of identity. I’m not anti-foreigners because, to me, if a player is good enough then it doesn’t matter where they come from. Obviously, you are better with home-bred players if they are available.”

There are plenty available in that huge building on the south-east corner of the Heriot-Watt University campus, and the pupils of Riccarton will play a major role in the future of Hearts.