ADAM ECKERSLEY didn’t expect to get his chance in the Hearts first team so soon after his arrival, he didn’t think he would even be fit enough to grasp it, but the Englishman has reason to be grateful for the gruelling training regime at the Tynecastle club after injury to Kevin McHattie accelerated his promotion.
Given a two-minute introduction in the League Cup tie against Stenhousemuir, his gaffer Robbie Neilson threw the August signing on early in last weekend’s Championship match at Dumbarton after the regular left-back suffered minor ligament damage.
“The opportunity has come a few weeks earlier than I anticipated,” says Eckersley, “and to be truthful it came a bit early for me because I didn’t feel 100 per cent. I didn’t manage to complete a pre-season unlike the rest of the guys so I’m playing catch-up, although you need to be ready to grab an opportunity when it comes your way and I want to grab this one with both hands.”
And having arrived at a club with the most extensive training schedule he has ever known, he doesn’t think it will be long until he is in peak condition.
“The training here is so intense if I did any extra I’d be finished! I’m 29 now and I was expecting the training to ease up and just be enjoying the games but I’ve joined Hearts and I’m now working harder than ever. The culture here is you train at least twice a day three or four times a week. I’ve gone from training once a day and being in bed by half 12 and I’m now in the gym at our training ground after 3pm. It’s a good thing because I’ll end up being in the best shape of my life by the end of it.”
At the moment the players’ only day off is a Monday, although, those first-team squad members involved in the U-20s don’t even get that. Still a shorter day than for most working men and women, it has been a shock to the system for players used to a different routine.
“The guys who play in the 20s have a tougher schedule. But it’s up to them to work hard and get in the first team and then they’ll get their Monday off,” says Neilson. “They have all bought into it so far. They have been great and worked hard. It will take time to get them to the level we want them at but we are getting there.
“On a Tuesday and a Thursday we do three sessions. We train in the morning, we go to the gym and then we train again in the afternoon. We do a double on a Wednesday and then a single session on the Friday so there is a lot of sessions and we come in on a Sunday after a game and train Sunday morning as well so we are doing ten sessions a week as opposed to the usual four. But it’s not just about the time they train, it’s about what you do as well. I think it’s important we do it this way. We want to try to break the mould a wee bit.”
Despite coming through the ranks at Manchester United, left, and spending time in Belgium and Denmark, Eckersley admits the current schedule has been eye-opening, but he hopes he will reap the reward of a prolonged playing career.
“I’ve played abroad as well and it was the same to most clubs here – one session a day. I played under various managers abroad and they were all the same. But with Robbie it’s crazy – the training is harder than I’ve ever experienced but we all know it will help us.
“On a personal level, I want to keep playing as long as I can. I’ve had a lot of injury problems so I want to stay as fit as I possibly can and get as many games under my belt as possible and I know all this hard work will help.” The physical toil, the work on technique and tactical tuition have all given the young squad the tools required to start their Championship season so positively, in their quest for promotion back to the Premiership at the very first attempt. But both Neilson and Eckersley accept that the test provided by a midweek trip to Celtic Park to try to secure progress in the League Cup is a massive step up.
“I know from playing against these smaller teams in the league – playing against Hearts every team wants to kill us,” says the full-back. “Getting a draw at the weekend meant everything to Dumbarton. They were timewasting in the 60th minute – who does that in a league game? It felt like they’d won the Champions League at the end of the game the way they were celebrating.” On Wednesday, Hearts will be the underdogs but Eckersley still believes they will be more positive. “It’s going to be a massive game for us. It’s a big occasion and one everyone is relishing, the opportunity to go up against Celtic. It’s always important to do well in the cups. We have a very young team, not much experience, but they are playing well and the speed in which they pass the ball I’m sure they can put most teams under pressure.”
Neilson saw his side ousted from the Petrofac Training Cup after he fielded a weakened side, but he says the approach will be different this time. With his assistants Stevie Crawford and Jack Ross he decides on a team and the tactics and then discusses it with director of football Craig Levein.
“It’s interesting to hear what he thinks and then I take it all on board and decide what I’m going to do. As a coach you take everyone’s advice. You can’t just be single minded. But, yeah, the buck stops with me! It’s the only way you are going to develop as a coach, by making decisions and standing by them.”