The sides who finished second and third last season found themselves with a similar dilemma this summer, writes Craig Fowler
There’s no set guidance for bringing through a promising young player into the first team squad. If you think about it in terms of trying to get from point A, when you first realise the teenager has real talent, to point B, where they’re a fully developed player and integral part of your first team, it’s a journey full of potential pitfalls, wrong turns, dead ends and the dreaded possibility that all will be lost.
Some players are ready to fend for themselves. They won’t thrive any other way. They need playing time and they have the hunger and the confidence required to learn from their mistakes as they go. Other players need to be led gently through the process; to be brought along gradually so they don’t fall hard and can’t find the resolve to get back up. There are some who need built up at any opportunity; others who must be knocked down.
It’s hard enough with outfield players, but it’s even tougher with goalkeepers. With outfielders, there’s at least the room to be flexible. A manager has the ability to get them involved in games off the bench or playing a different role. With goalkeepers, there isn’t that freedom. Sure, you can get them the odd game at the end of the season or in the League Cup. But really, a manager doesn’t know what it’s going to be like until they’re the number one. It’s like handing your son the keys to his first car and watching him drive off toward the horizon, praying he doesn’t crash.
This summer, both Hearts and Aberdeen have both found themselves at a crossroads. Each side possesses a highly rated young Scottish goalkeeper in Jack Hamilton (Hearts) and Danny Rogers (Aberdeen). In fact, along with Zander Clark of St Johnstone, they probably make up two of the top three young goalkeepers in the country. All of them are contracted until, at least, 2018 - Hamilton until 2019 - which is something that couldn’t be said about the previous No.1 at both Aberdeen and Hearts last season. Aberdeen decided to let Scott Brown go at the end of his deal, while Hearts offered Neil Alexander an extension under the pretence that he’d become a back-up, which the 38-year-old refused after a thoroughly consistent 2015/16 season. It left each club with a decision to make. Hand over the keys to the young pretender, or get a steady pair of hands for the next season or two. Hearts appear to be heading in one direction, while Aberdeen have certainly gone in the other.
Hamilton is now set to be Hearts’ No.1. It wasn’t originally the club’s plan. They thought they had Matt Gilks ready to come in as the first choice keeper over the next two seasons. It would have been a perfect situation for the club and the ‘Jack Hamilton plan’. The young goalkeeper would go out on loan next term and come back to fight for his place the following season. Because Gilks will turn 35 before the season begins, the club would have had no qualms about releasing him in two years time and letting Hamilton step into the No.1 role. However, it appears the Gilks deal has gone cold, and with Alexander having already left, it’s encouraged them to bright the timeline forward by a year or two.
Aberdeen always looked like they’d bring in another goalkeeper this summer, though it was expected Rogers would stick around and battle for the position. Instead, Aberdeen brought in two goalkeepers: Alexander from Hearts and Joe Lewis from Cardiff - a perennial back-up who has the pedigree to be a good No.1 if given the chance. Many see the double signing for one position as an indictment on Rogers’ future with the club, though it needn’t be the case.
While Aberdeen and Hearts are after the same thing next season - finish third or higher, get closer to challenge Celtic, have a good cup run - they are going about achieving those objections in different ways. Every single player in Aberdeen’s strongest starting XI, including Lewis if he becomes the new custodian, is between the ages of 24 and 29. The only players to have left Pittodrie in recent years were those Aberdeen were content to see the back of. Other than loanee Danny Ward returning to Liverpool six months earlier than expected, Derek McInnes has not lost a key member of his first team the entire time he has been at the club. They’ve built a squad, kept it together by dishing out numerous contract extensions, and believe it’s good enough to have another shot at the title next year and maybe even the following term too. This is a team in its prime. Trusting a 22-year-old goalkeeper who’s never played at the top flight level does not mesh with that plan. He could have stayed to play the role of back up, but Aberdeen believe it’s better for his development if he goes out on loan again, and who is to argue?
Hearts are still building their dream side while simultaneously bringing through young players from the academy with greater success than their northern foes. Aberdeen’s ability to keep their team together has been aided, in part, because most of the team (Niall McGinn, Jonny Hayes, Adam Rooney, Mark Reynolds) are no longer in the “potential” period of their careers, meaning there’s less interest from England. Hearts, on the other hand, would consider it a minor miracle if they got until January with Callum Paterson still a Hearts player, while there could also be interest around Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker. That’s not to disrespect the Aberdeen players. It’s just the nature of the transfer market right now. Clubs view Scottish players in terms of potential and a 21-year-old is more likely to be the subject of a bid than a 27-year-old if both are playing to a similar level.
Hearts can afford to gamble on their young stopper and forgive his mistakes, because the team is still in flux. Robbie Neilson himself said the plan is to build a team good enough to challenge for a title in five years. Aberdeen, unless they meticulously build a completely new side around Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean and Graeme Shinnie, aren’t working on that timescale. They need to win now, and that means Rogers will have to wait.