SENIOR Hearts players enjoy a break this weekend due to the Scottish Cup quarter-finals but, for a full team of Riccarton academy graduates, there is business to attend do. The club's policy of loaning out young talent to lower league sides means no rest for a host of upcoming players, with the Scottish Football League transformed into a breeding ground in the absence of an SPL reserve league.
Gordon Smith and Jonathan Brown at Stirling Albion, Ryan McGowan and Conrad Balatoni at Partick Thistle, Matthew Park, Dylan McGowan and Dean Lyness at East Fife, Paul Mulrooney and Danny Thomson at Clyde, Jonathan Stewart at Dundee and Mark Ridgers at Airdrie United: all players under the age of 22 farmed out by Hearts to gain first-team experience. Not forgetting Arvydas Novikovas, the Lithuanian international winger on loan at St Johnstone.
When you consider that, earlier in the campaign, strikers Jamie Mole and Michael Deland had spells with Raith Rovers and East Fife respectively, the Tynecastle strategy is clear and deliberate. Loaning out young players accords them competitive football at a good level, tests their resolve and dedication whilst honing their development. It is an approach which previously proved worthwhile for Hearts with players such as Robbie Neilson and Calum Elliot, but which has assumed added importance since reserve football became redundant.
Sending youngsters out is, in many cases, the final stage of their development; an examination to see if they will make the grade. Not all of the above will remain Hearts players after this summer's squad reshuffling, but those who apply themselves at lower-league level stand a better chance of first-team promotion once back in Edinburgh.
The managers working with them are, understandably, grateful for the chance to coach a class of player generally above their own. What they must guard against is inexperience and the problems which accompany it. Generally, feedback from the SFL is that the Hearts loanees are proving a rousing success.
"Both Gordon and Jonny have done well here. They are hard working boys who have the right attitude and have looked comfortable at this level," said Jocky Scott, whose Stirling Albion side face Morton in the First Division on Saturday. "I think it's been a good learning experience for them. It's difficult to say right now whether they can play in the Premier League. The potential is certainly there so they have a chance. They need to want it badly enough to succeed at the top level. If they really want it then they will get there. It's the same with most young players."
Smith has scored nine times in 23 games for Stirling, while Brown has made 15 appearances at full-back. Both seem eager to capitalise on their First Division exposure in the hope that Jim Jefferies, the Hearts manager, takes note.
"These sort of moves have to be done from the players' point of view and the clubs' point of view," continued Scott. "The boys need to develop and it's difficult with no reserve league. It's beneficial for everyone. It demands a lot of hard work from them, but if you want to succeed in this game then hard work is a must."
The dedication required from players on loan in the lower divisions is not always well-publicised. Many of those farmed out by Hearts train with their colleagues each morning at Riccarton before travelling to evening training sessions with their respective loan clubs, most of whom are part-time. Energy-sapping it is, but the appetite for both environments is evident within the youngsters.
"Mark is in training at Hearts during the day and then comes out to train with us at night," acknowledged the Airdrie manager Jimmy Boyle, who has been taken aback by Ridgers' professional approach. "One thing I do say to him is, if he's tired because of his workload, just to give me a phone and he won't need to come in with us. The most important thing is players are fit and ready to play games. I do ask him to give me a call if he's feeling tired at all, but he's never phoned me."
Boyle will not hesitate to propose another loan deal for Ridgers next season despite Airdrie conceding 41 goals in 25 Second Division matches to date. "I know we've lost a lot of goals this year but you can count on one hand the ones Mark has been involved in," he explained. "We've had a very young defence in front of him and it's taken time for it to knit together, but big Mark has been great.
"I think he's enjoyed his time at Airdrie because he's had a lot of good experience. He's played in both cups for us against Kilmarnock and Morton and playing regularly has got him a chance with the Scotland Under-21 squad. Playing with us will bring him on a lot for the future.
"He's still very young but he will become a first-team goalkeeper at a high level. He has all the attributes. He's big, strong, kicks a good ball and talks well. He's a great lad who works hard so hopefully the experience he gets here takes him forward towards that. If not, I wouldn't think twice about taking him out on loan again next year. No problem at all. I'll definitely look to do it again because he's a good type to have. He doesn't miss training and works very hard."
That old mantra of hard work is something all young players must embrace to succeed. Hearts' youth academy graduates are learning the fast way and reaping the benefits of life in the Scottish Football League.