Young Hearts all set to run free in commitment to youth

Hearts’ commitment to developing their own players has manifested itself this summer in an army of youngsters jostling for places in Craig Levein’s squad.

Saturday, 20th July 2019, 6:30 am
Updated Saturday, 20th July 2019, 7:30 am
Harry Cochrane has been impressive when playing for the first team
Harry Cochrane has been impressive when playing for the first team

Teenagers Harry Cochrane, Aaron Hickey, Connor Smith, Anthony McDonald and Andy Irving have had varying degrees of first-team exposure thus far and supporters would have no concerns about any of them starting the Premiership opener against Aberdeen a fortnight tomorrow [Hearts’ game has been moved from Saturday, August 3, because of Aberdeen’s involvement in the Europa League]. Indeed, there are plenty who would like to see the majority of them unleashed, such is the impression they have all made in their time on the pitch so far.

In addition to this fleet-footed quintet, 19-year-old trio Callumn Morrison, Alex Petkov and Bobby Burns, 20-year-old Aidan Keena, 21-year-old pair Lewis Moore and Jamie Brandon, and 22–year-old Dario Zanatta will also hope to prove in the coming weeks that they can be part of the picture for the upcoming campaign.

The progress of so many young players has limited the need for Levein to bring in new faces this summer. Only Craig Halkett, Jamie Walker and Conor Washington have arrived from outwith, while a midfielder will be recruited to cover for Peter Haring.

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Beyond this, Levein knows he can now trust several of his young players to fill any gaps in the squad. Of the 12 players previously mentioned, only Petkov is yet to start a game for Hearts, but the Bulgarian centre-back is highly regarded by Levein and was recently given a contract extension.

Two seasons ago, when the squad was relatively short of depth, Levein pitched in a raft of young players to give them a taste of first-team football before sending several of them out on loan to other Scottish clubs last year to get more experience of playing “men’s football” after signing a raft of senior players last summer. Those youngsters are all now a year further on in their development, have bulked up physically and are desperate to seize their chance.

Early signs this summer are that Irving and McDonald have both benefited from their loan stints in the Scottish Championship with Falkirk and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and are now ready to start playing a more regular part at Tynecastle. Zanatta and Keena have also made positive impressions in their recent loan spells in the same division and will be given every opportunity this summer to prove that they are ready to feature in Hearts’ attack.

Hickey hasn’t had a loan stint yet, but given the way he’s taken to life in the first team, he might not need one. The 17-year-old already appears ready to compete with Aidan White for the left-back berth, saving Levein the need to go into the market for a new player in what has been a problem position in recent seasons.

Of course, given the number of senior players in the Hearts squad, not all of these youngsters will feature prominently this season. Several will go out on loan once Levein has had a proper chance to assess their progress, but, following several years of rebuilding the academy, the manager now has the luxury of being able to cherry-pick the best of them to augment his squad with fresh zest.