THE prospect of a new Paul Hartley surfacing at Tynecastle is mouthwatering for any Hearts fan. While it is premature to tag young Callum Tapping as such, excitement surrounds the fact he is now being coached by the midfield master himself while on loan at Alloa. And what is he being taught? How to penetrate defences and score goals – the trademarks which helped Hartley etch his name in Gorgie folklore.
The 19-year-old midfielder is in Clackmannanshire for a month to gain first-team experience after joining Hearts from Tottenham Hotspur’s youth academy last year. Hartley will ask Hearts to extend the agreement, so impressed is he with Tapping’s ability.
He acknowledged that any decision is at the Edinburgh club’s discretion. If the answer is no, Tapping will at least return to Riccarton with a new dimension to his game as Hartley tries to put his own stamp on the player. “In the games I’ve seen, he’s tended to sit in midfield but I think he can play an advanced role,” Hartley told the Evening News. “I feel he could be the one breaking forward from midfield and I’ve said that to him. I want him to express himself and go and play.
“I’ve told him, ‘you don’t need to be the one sitting back all the time, go and try to get into the box and get a goal’. There aren’t enough players who can do that from midfield, penetrate into the penalty area. I’ve told him I believe he can do it. He’s got the energy and the fitness. If he isn’t on the ball, he can run beyond the strikers and get in behind the other team’s defence.”
Hartley, of course, became a 25-cap Scotland internationalist on the back of his ability to break forward and score crucial goals. “It was my game at the time when I was at Hearts,” he said.
“I broke from the middle of the park to get forward and support the strikers and I think Callum can do that. He’s got that quality, plus he’s got the energy and the drive. He looks like he enjoys his football, which is important. He’s come to Alloa and trained brilliantly. In the games he’s played, he’s shown what he’s all about.”
Hartley pursued Tapping for quite some time before Hearts relented and agreed to a temporary move. The decision was aimed at preparing the player for senior football, in the same way that Alloa helped Kevin McHattie’s development during the defender’s loan last season. Tapping could find himself needed for SPL duty in the near future depending on how many players depart Tynecastle during the January transfer window. The more games he gets between now and then, the better.
So far, he has made two substitute appearances against Brechin City and Stenhousemuir in the Second Division. Hartley reports his performances as “very impressive”. Alloa have won five and drawn one of their last six league matches, but Tapping will get a starting berth soon. Like a kid who has his best mate over for dinner, Hartley will soon be on the phone to Hearts asking if the youngster can stay longer.
“I will be speaking to Hearts, but it will depend on what they want to do,” he continued. “If they need extra bodies in there because they’re struggling then we’ll need to wait, but I’d like to keep him beyond the month. It will be entirely up to Hearts. All we are doing is trying to give Callum an opportunity.
“Hopefully he can take it and then make his breakthrough. He has his own style of play. He came on for us against Brechin a couple of weeks ago and just calmed the play right down. He spotted a pass, played the ball and kept it simple. What he does have is a really good passing range.”
It was that cultured ability which first caught Hartley’s eye during the Keyline Cup in Oban in July. Since then, he has been a regular at Hearts’ Under-20 matches with his eyes transfixed on Tapping. “I had watched him since the start of the season in the Under-20s. He played against us at Oban in pre-season and stuck out straight away. I’ve watched him four or five times since. We tried to get him earlier this season, but Hearts wouldn’t let him out. Then we got a call saying he was available.
“He’s a terrific player – good vision, can see a pass, can play it and he’s very calm and composed on the ball. I’ve been really impressed with him. He is very comfortable in possession, he can pick a pass out and he works hard for the team. He’s come from Tottenham and he’s had a good grounding there. He’s still young and I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him.
“He’s come to us to try and get that first-team experience and hopefully we’ll give him that. I’m just hoping this arrangement will last more than a month. We’ve been doing well so he’s started his first couple of games on the bench, but he will be involved and get a chance to start soon. He’s looked good in training and he’s a nice kid.
“We’ve been fortunate in the loan market because we’ve brought some really good ones in. All we do is try to give them first-team experience and then, when they go back to their clubs, hopefully they can push to get in the first team. They all want to make that breakthrough at the end of the day. If they work hard and have a good attitude and desire, ability will take care of itself. We’ve just given them a little bit of a platform to go and play.”
McHattie’s progress illustrates the kind of loan arrangement that benefits both clubs and the young player involved. With Danny Grainger out injured until next season, the teenage left-back is now first choice at Hearts. Hartley hopes to utilise contacts at his former club to make loans a regular occurrence. “All we want to do is give the younger players a chance. That’s why we’re here.
“Hopefully it benefits everybody – ourselves, the player and his parent club. We always know Hearts have good young players and I’m always on the phone to say, ‘what have you got, what’s available’? What I do is go and watch their Under-20s play every week, which helps because you know what’s out there. I don’t just pick a player for the sake of it. I pick him because I’ve seen him and I like him. We’re always looking at young Hearts players and the club has been very good to us in letting us bring boys in. Hopefully it benefits them to let youngsters play with us, then they can push on from there.
“Kevin McHattie is ready because he’s played first-team football. It’s up to a player to go and perform when he gets the opportunity. We liked him as soon as we got him. I know he’s jumping up a few levels playing in the SPL for Hearts but he is another one with a bright future. I thought he was really good on Sunday against Hibs. He got a booking early on, which meant that one more mis-timed tackle could have seen him sent off. I thought he handled it well. His defending was good, as was his distribution.
“Kevin was the same as Callum when he came to us. He played five games for us and was in the winning team every time (Alloa only conceded one goal in that time). He was strong defensively and he got up and down the park, which I like my full-backs to do. He probably wasn’t expecting his chance this season but I saw the quality he has. He’s still learning the game all the time.”