MEN against boys. It’s a well-worn cliché in football, used to describe a gulf between two teams, but it is not normally used in a literal sense.
For Hearts this season, the fear might have been that the youthful first-team squad forced upon the club by its financial circumstances would find it difficult to cope in the big boys’ playground of the Scottish Premiership.
So far, however, the evidence suggests that Gary Locke’s players are capable of ‘manning up’ as they look to overcome the considerable odds stacked against them in the battle to avoid relegation.
Jordan McGhee, one of the teenagers who has seized the opportunity afforded him by Hearts’ straitened circumstances, has revealed that he and his team-mates have gone the extra mile to try and ensure they can meet the physical demands of top-flight football.
“People maybe thought we might be bullied in games this season because we are such a young team but it hasn’t been like that,” said the 17-year-old defender. “We have been trying to build ourselves up physically as well. Our mentality is already strong, trying to get those points back.
“We do strength and conditioning as part of our training with the sports scientist at Riccarton anyway. But you need to do extra yourself, going to the gym and trying to build up your body strength. We’ve all been doing that. Sometimes in games, though, skill can beat strength if you are clever enough.
“When you step up to Premiership level, you notice it is more physical and there is a lot more movement. The tempo is quicker and you don’t get as much of the ball sometimes.
“Last year in the under-20s league was good preparation for a lot of the boys, because we were often playing against seasoned pros in some of the games when the opposition included over-age players. It was like that again in the under-20 derby this week when Hibs had James McPake playing as he comes back from injury.”
McGhee was just 16 when he made his first-team debut at the end of last season, a brief substitute outing against St Mirren. The youngster from East Kilbride really came to prominence, however, when he stepped off the bench and scored a dramatic late winner when Hearts defeated Aberdeen 2-1 at Tynecastle last month.
The Scotland under-21 international again displayed his knack of scoring significant goals when he grabbed a late equaliser as Hearts drew 2-2 with Hibs in the under-20 derby earlier this week.
“Scoring the late goal against Aberdeen was a great experience for me,” added McGhee. “It was nice to do it again with the late equaliser in the under-20 derby as well.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been noticed more since getting the winner against Aberdeen. I’ve not been out much since then. So I haven’t been getting recognised around the city or anything like that. But I’ve been getting loads of messages from my pals or fans on Twitter which has been nice. I must admit I’ve watched the goal again a few times!
“It was only my second first-team appearance and to get the winner in front of the Gorgie Stand was amazing.
“I thought I’d have to wait a bit longer for my chance in the first team this season. I was just concentrating on playing for the under-20s and looking to build on what I did with them last season. But the gaffer has given me the call into the first-team squad and I’ve tried to take my chance when it has come along.”
Hearts face Ross County in Dingwall today hoping to respond positively to consecutive defeats against Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Celtic, both games which saw controversial penalty decisions go against Locke’s team.
“Decisions go against you in games and you just have to get on with it,” reflected McGhee. “You need to keep bouncing back. It happened again in the under-20 derby this week when Hibs got two penalties. We felt both decisions against us were really harsh. When things like that happen in a game, you just have to get your heads up and get on with it.
“Every game is obviously important for us, but with where we are right now there’s no doubt this one on Saturday is a big one. The next five games are very important for us, against teams we can maybe try to close in on. We need to try and take as many points as possible from these games, try to get back to zero points and take it from there.”