HEARTS found out last week that an overreliance on youth can be costly. Today at Tannadice they will try to begin the process of recovery against a team whose young players are performing with a verve that has reportedly piqued the interest of Barcelona, Real Madrid and others.
The contrast is striking. While the abject nature of the 7-0 defeat by Celtic exposed the lack of experience in a Hearts squad pared to the bone by administration and a transfer embargo, Dundee United’s nascent talents are flourishing in a controlled environment among seasoned professionals.
For Danny Wilson, the Hearts captain, it is time to move on from Sunday. Still only 21, Wilson is a gnarled veteran compared to his teenage team-mates but he refuses to cite youth as an excuse. “I don’t think we can keep saying ‘we’re a young team’, ‘we’re a young team’. We’re halfway through a season,” Wilson said. “Maybe that would’ve stood up two or three games into the season if we’d taken a heavy beating, but we showed we weren’t taking heavy beatings and were competing well at the start. Now we’ve got halfway through and we’ve taken a heavy defeat. We can’t get too down about it.
“Better Hearts teams than us would probably have lost heavily to Celtic last Sunday. We just need to try and put it to the back of our minds and move on. We came in on Monday and went through the video, and that was it. As soon as we left that room, it was in the past. We can’t influence that any more. We can only influence this Saturday and the games going forward. We’re trying to remain positive and upbeat, however hard it’s been.
“It’s the lowest I’ve felt. Even on the pitch, it didn’t seem to matter what we tried to do or what formation we played, we couldn’t stop them. It wasn’t a nice thing to be a part of. It was maybe just a one-off. Hopefully for us it was and we can put it right at Tannadice.”
Like everyone else in Scottish football and beyond Wilson has been mightily impressed by United’s form in recent weeks. Thirteen goals in their last three games suggest a team full of confidence and the form of young Terrors Ryan Gauld, John Souttar and player of the month Andrew Robertson has had commentators salivating.
Gauld in particular has caught the eye. Just 17, the attacking midfielder is being linked with moves to some of Europe’s leading clubs and has professed a desire to play abroad some day.
The Hearts skipper recognises the threat posed by Gauld but can also empathise with the teenager’s situation. Wilson was just 17 when he made the breakthrough at Rangers and moved to Liverpool a year later for an initial fee of £2 million. First-team opportunities were hard to come by during three seasons at Anfield and Wilson returned to Scotland to join Hearts, initially on loan. He is adamant his time in England was not wasted but is unwilling to hand out career advice to Gauld, a player he has nothing but admiration for.
“He does look pretty dangerous and I don’t really know how we’re going to defend against him,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to get ourselves back on track so we’ll have a game plan and we’ll try and stick to it.
“Ryan Gauld and players like that have been linked here, there and everywhere. I suppose it could be a bit unsettling for them but if Dundee United really want to keep them, which I imagine they do if they’ve all signed new contracts, I don’t see any problem with them staying.
“I don’t really like commenting on other people because you never really know what their situation is. You don’t know whether the club is fighting to keep them or what the situation is. The United lads all seem to be in a good place just now. They’re all playing well and playing regularly so that seems to be the right decision for them.”
But what if a big offer came in?
“I think it would be difficult to turn down,” Wilson admitted. “It just depends what the situation is. You don’t know if Dundee United are wanting to sell or how much they want to keep them. You never know until you’re actually in the situation.”
When Wilson headed south there were plenty pundits only too willing to offer an opinion on the move. Many said that, at 18, he was too young and he should have stayed at Ibrox but Wilson has no regrets. “I feel I benefited from it,” he says of his time at Liverpool. “Other people might not feel I did but that’s the thing, everybody’s situation is different.”
Pressed on the advice he was given at the time, Wilson added: “I think you need to just stick to people you know and trust. As soon as a young boy gets linked somewhere, 15 ex-pros come out and say they’re doing this right or that wrongly. A lot of them don’t really know what the full situation is. They might not be giving him the best advice. These [United] boys have chosen to stay and they’re playing well. That’s the problem for us this weekend.”
Another problem for Wilson and everyone at Tynecastle is that while United can rest their younger players when appropriate, Hearts, with such a threadbare squad, cannot. “We don’t have that luxury but we’ve known that since the start of the season,” said Wilson. “I’ve not heard a young boy come out and say, ‘I’m young and this shouldn’t be happening to me at this stage in my career’. They’re all happy enough to be playing and they have the opportunity to put last Sunday right.
“It was a bad day for us, no doubt about it. But you aren’t going to lose 7-0 every week and you aren’t going to play Celtic every week. These players will have a lot more games in their careers. That one game can be put down to a bad day at the office and hopefully they will all go on to have good careers.”