LAST season, Ryan McGowan was the new kid on the block, but circumstances at Hearts conspired to see him elevated to a position where he became a mainstay and a guiding influence.
The Australian is the latest first-team regular to depart in the hope that the sums can start adding up, and behind him the Hearts conveyor belt continues full pelt. The fact is, the side may be swelled by kids but they don’t stay kids for long. They have to mature quickly at Tynecastle these days.
But it should come as no surprise that the make-up of the Hearts side is growing younger and younger. There was no secrecy in the club’s ambition to see more and more of their side reared through the ranks and promoted into the first team. There was no hiding the fact that plan would have to be accelerated to meet the financial needs of a season where the luxurious wages of old would be cut as the club moved on to a more self-sustainable footing.
But with another gap opening up, thanks to the expected departure to China of McGowan, who was one of the assets the club could cash in on, the fact is the youth ranks are being pillaged and the kids are outnumbering the experienced pros. And, with the transfer window still open, there may be even more reliance on the fledgling footballers as the season plays out. The departure of several first-team regulars has been compounded by injuries to others. Jamie Hamill hasn’t kicked a competitive ball yet this term, while Danny Grainger, praised as one of those offering crucial guidance to the academy graduates around about him early in the campaign, is now out for the season. But every time a gap appears, there seems to be a body elevated from the youth ranks to plug it.
On Thursday night the normal pressures of a derby were heightened by the reshuffle necessitated by McGowan’s move to Shandong Luneng Taishan and Andy Webster’s battle with illness. While Darren Barr moved to full-back, it was “Baby Gowser”, Ryan’s younger brother Dylan, who stepped into the centre-back role. Also part of the new-look defence was Kevin McHattie, while, in front of them, Scott Robinson, Andy Driver and Arvydas Novikovas were all graduates from the youth ranks, while second-half substitutes Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker and the extremely promising Jason Holt, all products of the club’s academy, came on and gave Hearts a shot in the arm, if not the victory.
It affords the Hearts kids the kind of opportunities they would have had to wait and wait for in previous years.
“Yeah, that’s what the young boys are here for, to come in and make an impact on the game and take our chance,” explains 19-year-old McHattie, who has already amassed nine first-team outings this term as cover for Grainger. “The young boys are going to be key this season. Me, Holty, Dylan [McGowan], Scott [Robinson], as well and Jamie [Walker] and Callum [Paterson], we have all stepped up so it’s good.”
Like a number of the youngsters who have been promoted into the first-team squad, he was shipped out on loan last term to gain some vital game time. He learned his trade in the hurly burly of the Third Division, with Alloa, while others gained experience at Raith Rovers and East Fife. But nothing is quite like being thrown in at the deep end in the SPL. Some prospered immediately, some have taken time to find their feet.
“I’m feeling like I’m growing into it and now I’m getting used to it,” admits McHattie. “The first couple of days were a wee bit nervy but now I’m used to it.”
He was barely into the team before he was facing Hibs in the first derby of the season. On Thursday he had his third taste of the fixture and he says that while such occasions are testing, they also underline what is needed if the kids are to thrive.
“Most of all, it’s character. You have to show immense character to come in and compete in these games. You have got to step up to the plate and take your chance.”
It wasn’t pretty on Thursday but it was competitive, and Hearts had the added complication of a rejigged backline, of which McHattie was part. It made it slightly more fraught than it might have been as they settled in.
“Definitely, but the players who went in did brilliantly and proved they can deal with that,” says McHattie. “Darren is a great player and so is Dylan. I still prefer [Dylan] playing just in front of the defence. He’s good in there and he gets the ball and plays it and he is solid in there as well. But [centre-half] is where he has played most so it was good for him to come in there in a game like this and play so well.
“It was a hard game but we did reasonably well in the first half and came out in the second half and did better. We played them off the park in the second half and they couldn’t get out their half. With it being a big derby, it’s great for me as a young kid.”
But McHattie accepts that the youngsters need to garner as much advice and experience as possible just now, as life will only get tougher the more the experience in the side is diluted and, like most observers, he doesn’t necessarily expect Ryan McGowan to be the last mid-season departure.
“Ryan will be a great loss. He has been here a while, been here since he was a kid, and he has been one of the main players I’ve looked up to, as well as Danny [Grainger]. He has been great with young boys like me. I wish him all the best but obviously we have to move on from that.”