Youth academy: Are Hearts getting good value for money?
By the Old Castle Rock @TheOldCastleRo1
Gary Mackay’s latest article on the Scotsman this week regarding Hearts’ youth academy will surely spark a lively debate between fans. Mackay has been a polarising figure in recent years with Jambos, so his musings on the current youth set up offers a number of intriguing points. Coming from one of Hearts’ most consistent and reliable youth players of all time, it is a worthwhile read.
The former Hearts midfielder calls into question the current set up at Tynecastle with regards to blooding youngsters. Emerging talent has been few and far between this season in Gorgie, with previously touted talents either leaving the club permanently or being punted out on loan to the lower divisions. Which ones are likely to have an impact this season or next? Let’s have a look.
The midfielder shone as the 16-year-old poster boy of Craig Levein’s second spell, after a colossus performance and goal in the 4-0 destruction of Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic. Therefore, eyebrows touched hairlines after Hearts announced a short-term loan to League One side Montrose last month. Cochrane has played the majority of his football in the Hearts youth set up, making fleeting appearances since his breakout season. Levein’s insistence on flooding the squad with journeymen and experienced players from 2018 onwards pushed Cochrane back towards the youths. Due to his tender years and slight physique, it was perhaps understandable not to overburden Cochrane with a regular starting place in one of the most direct leagues in Europe.
The overall direct play in high tempo matches may be what is holding Cochrane back right now, however at 19 years old he has time on side. Generally, sending a player out on loan is a vital part of their development. However, Cochrane’s spell at Dunfermline last season proved to be a disappointing spell for all concerned. It did not bode well for his future. However, when offered a starting role this season Cochrane thrived against Raith Rovers in a 3-1 Betfred Cup win. He buzzed about looking for the ball and seeking to drive forward with impetus. Two standout moments being when he executed a lovely curling pass to set Lewis Moore free on the right wing, along with a direct run and shot in the second half. He certainly looked like he could perform at Hearts’ current level in the Championship.
Why is he spending Saturdays in Angus then? For reasons listed above, really. Cochrane’s place in the squad at the moment is not guaranteed due to Irving, Halliday, Lee and Haring all above him in the pecking order. It makes perfect sense to loan him out to a side where he can get his head down and prove he can play against seasoned pros who are out to earn win bonuses and don’t mind who they kick to do it. His contract expires at the end of the season, and it will surely be a priority of Hearts to renew.
The ‘Portobello Pirlo’ with a wand of a left foot. Every time he played last season he looked a step above the rest of the Hearts midfield. He plays with his head up, always looking for a forward pass. This is likely due to playing his youth career in a number 10 role. So far in the first team he has operated in the deeper role, alongside a defensive midfield partner.
Irving has real competition for places this season, as there are three players in Lee, Haring and Halliday who are jostling for a place in the starting XI. All 3 are vastly experienced, whilst Irving is not. Irving’s creativity and vision give him a slight edge on Lee and Halliday. He possesses a delightful range of passing and a willingness to set the tempo in the middle of the park. A partnership of Haring and Irving may offer the exact requirement of steel and vision in the Championship this season. He is another who’s contract expires at the end of the season. Hearts must be aware of this and should make it the number one priority, alongside Stephen Kingsley, to renew his deal. A brief check of the ‘Announce Irving contract’ replies on any of their Tweets will confirm the supporter’s feelings. It is rather alarming now to note that as Hearts enter December, the obligatory signing picture has not taken place. There will be a queue of clubs interested so it is far from certain Irving will be a Hearts player for the next campaign.
Euan Henderson is an interesting talent. At times he looks like a really intelligent young player, who looked capable of playing Daniel Stendel’s high tempo style of play in the final third. He particularly linked up well last season with Steven Naismith, who used to give him such fearsome ‘advice’ at times it felt like the entire Gorgie stand was privy to it. Henderson comes across as the true definition of youth in the Hearts ranks. He appears as a quiet player on the pitch and runs himself into the ground for the cause. He can play anywhere along the front line and really shone in the 5-0 win against Airdrie. Incredibly he made his debut in 2017, although he proved to be another who was then discarded for Levein’s troupe of scattergun signings.
The conundrum for Hearts fans is not where he plays, it’s why hasn’t he had a regular chance to play. Henderson has shown more during his time at Tynecastle than new signings such as Elliot Frear. He has not been farmed out on loan yet which may still work in his favour. Frear has so far been a major disappointment on the left-hand side, the role that Henderson favours. The next few games will be crucial. A Scottish Cup final place is not even out of the question, although time is ticking.
Players on the sidelines
Lewis Moore is another player in the Henderson mould, both in position and in his impact last season. Moore plays on the wing and has a direct style of play that worked well last season. He had spells on loan at Cowdenbeath, Forfar and Falkirk since breaking through at Tynecastle. Having played regularly in the first two loan spells and sporadically at Hearts, he has already amassed around 100 appearances in professional football. He signed a new 2 year deal in the summer however at the age of 22, should now be playing regular first team football. Could be a potential exit in January.
Jamie Brandon is the current back up to Michael Smith at right back for Hearts. He can fill in at left back too, however he has yet to cement a place on either side at Tynecastle. Brandon is fearsome in the tackle and is a willing worker up and down the line. Another 22-year-old who signed a 2 year extension in June, Brandon may be moved on in January or next summer.
Scott McGill has performed admirably in the games he played in the Betfred Cup this season. The low-key matches offered a great opportunity for the centre midfielder to shine, where he was very brave on the ball, always looking for a pass and playing on the front foot. He could be one that would benefit from a loan similar to Cochrane.
Is it working?
Levein’s transfer policy may have knocked a few careers back in a Hearts shirt. It doesn’t mean they can’t be brought back to the fore. Neilson has already proved to be ruthless with releasing players, as he waved goodbye to Anthony Mcdonald and Callumn Morrison to Cordoba and Falkirk respectively. The pressure will be on now for the young Riccarton talent that are still standing to remain a part of his plans.
Neilson was well known for his swashbuckling young team of 2014/15 that romped to the league title. However, it should be pointed out these were not players blooded by Neilson. He inherited a side who had suffered a gruelling character-building season previously. Neilson’s young guns actually began the 14/15 season as footballers who had faced more challenges in their short careers than most do in their entire career, and thus possessed a stronger grit and determination than the typical youth prospect.
With the title race alive, it will be fascinating to observe if Neilson is willing to take a chance with players like Henderson or Moore by starting them in a run of crucial games ahead of the final 22 games to clinch the Championship. Even the emergence of one or two of these talents will inevitably release some of the criticism around Hearts’ academy and whether or not it is as effective as it once was.