Hearts to stay in Reserve League regardless of Celtic and Rangers participation

Hearts will enter a team in Scotland’s Reserve League again next season even if Celtic and Rangers withdraw.

Thursday, 9th May 2019, 6:30 am
Updated Thursday, 9th May 2019, 7:30 am
Hearts plan to play in the SPFLs Reserve League next season so youngsters such as Aaron Hickey, above, keep developing. Pic: TSPL

Craig Levein, manager and director of football at Tynecastle Park, values the development loan system and the option of playing promising teens at reserve level.

The Scottish Professional Football League are discussing whether Celtic and Rangers “colts” teams could be accommodated within the professional pyramid. That would mean both Glasgow clubs pulling out of the Reserve League but Hearts will remain involved regardless.

Levein believes development loans are the future. They allow youngsters to play competitively for a loan team in the lower reaches of the SPFL and also represent their parent club in the Reserve League.

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The system has benefited Hearts youths including Dario Zanatta, Lewis Moore and Euan Henderson this season and Levein will utilise it again next term. He feels reserve football enhances young players more than playing in a colts side.

“We will be staying with reserves. We play younger kids in the reserves anyway so it is a challenge for them and I’m fine with that. The older ones will go out on loan again,” said Levein.

“It’s just my opinion, but I am not convinced that [colts] is the best way. I think the loan system is really good, particularly now they have changed to development loans this season.

“They might change to something else by the time we get to next season but I quite like that system. I think it works really well. What we do is play our younger players in the reserves, and our older, 19 or 20-year-olds go out on loan. Some just bypass it completely and go straight into the first team.

“So, between all those things, and the fact you can just about pick where to put the players out on loan, there’s quite a lot of choice there to help young players improve. I quite like that.”

Suggestions are that Rangers Colts and Celtic Colts could be shoehorned into an expanded second tier in Scotland, growing the Championship from ten clubs to 12. Strictly speaking, any new SPFL member would normally start at the bottom rung but it is not yet clear how the arrangement would work, or whether it will be implemented for next season. Levein is concerned with development.

“I think with colts teams – I don’t know how it works and I am probably speaking through my backside as usual – but going into the Lowland League and maybe not getting out and staying there for two or three years, does it improve anybody’s development?

“Some players are maybe suited to that level, some maybe need to be playing at a higher level. If you can’t guarantee you are going to get out of that league, then your players are going to be stuck at that level for a period of time.

“Again, that’s just my own view. I haven’t looked too closely at it because I think you need a really strong team to compete against men.

“You have seen the results from the Challenge Cup where very few of the Colts teams progressed far enough in the competition to play in the semi-final or final. I might be wrong, I was wrong once before, although I can’t remember when that was!”

He certainly isn’t losing his sense of humour over the issue. Not is he objecting to any club wishing to form a colts side. He simply feels loaning out players who are not making a first-team impact is the best way to ready them for that environment.

The harsh realities of lower-league football can force kids to grow up quicker and match the fully-grown men they find themselves pitched in against.

“Going on loan, you get thrown in the deep end and it’s a case of sink or swim,” said Levein.

“Now it’s a bit better in the academy because the older age groups have competitive football, previously it wasn’t, so you could get to a loan team at 18 years of age having not played at a proper stadium.

“So I just like the loan system. I like the way they did it this year and hopefully it doesn’t change too much. We’ll see what happens. I don’t have any objection to colts teams, there are countries where B-teams or colts or whatever you want to call them, work quite successfully. It’s just everyone has a different view on these things.”

One of those to bypass the loan and reserve options is midfielder Harry Cochrane. He is recapturing form and fitness after an irritating season full of injury troubles. Levein reinstated the 18-year-old to Hearts’ starting line-up for the recent Edinburgh derby at Easter Road and was rewarded with a composed display. The player also shone in spells against Kilmarnock last weekend and is in the frame to start against Aberdeen tomorrow.

“It was good to get another 65 to 70 minutes for Harry last week. I thought he was really good,” said Levein. “He obviously tired and they caught him on the ball a couple of times. In general, he brings a lot of calmness and composure to the team.”

Others are also giving the manager food for thought ahead of the Scottish Cup final against Celtic later this month. Levein is confident that he already knows “six or seven” of the team to start at Hampden Park, so Friday’s game at Pittodrie and next Sunday’s league trip to Celtic Park are the only opportunities left for players to stake their claim.

“I was pleased with Harry and Arnaud Djoum against Kilmarnock,” continued Levein. “Jake Mulraney showed again that he is obviously going to be an asset. I thought Steven MacLean was good as well as Uche Ikpeazu, who only played the first half. Defensively we are fine. I thought we had a number of good performances.

“After the Rangers game last month when we lost 3-1 at home, I was annoyed at how we had gone about our business. We just didn’t get up to the tempo that we will need to be at. I couldn’t say that to the players on Saturday, so I can take some solace from that despite the 1-0 defeat.”