Nurturing youth is as important to owner Ann Budge and manager Craig Levein as qualifying for Europe or crunching boardroom figures.
A total of 15 teenagers played first-team football at Hearts last season, the highest number at any club in Europe. Now reserve team coach Andy Kirk is tasked with developing the next generation after an intake of nine academy kids this week.
Last year saw eight make the transition from academy football to professional, with five of those making senior debuts last season. Kirk is excited by another batch of proteges.
“It is a proud moment when you see them making their debut in the first team. You see how much it means for them and how excited they are. It’s the same for me,” Kirk, pictured, says.
“Chrissy Hamilton, Connor Smith, Cammy Logan and Leroy Makovora were making their senior debuts in the last game of the season at Kilmarnock. I’m in the stand and I’m proud as punch. It’s great for them. You’ve worked with them all year and they get a fantastic opportunity like that to go and shine.
“All clubs are trying to develop players and get them into the first team, but the one factor is having a manager who is willing to play them. That makes it a lot easier. We can develop players but if your manager has no interest in bringing young players through, it’s a much harder task.
“We’re very fortunate with Craig, who is open to giving youngsters opportunities. That makes our work more rewarding.”
Logan and Makovora are two of the nine who making the step into the professional ranks this week.
“They can’t come in full-time until they’re 16 so that’s why we sign them at that age,” continued Kirk. “We are hoping the transition from part-time to full-time football isn’t too much of a jump. Sometimes it can take them a wee bit of time.
“The boys will develop at different at their own pace. It might be that they get a wee spell in the first team and then come back out for a period. If you’re a kid who has got ambition and you want to push your career forward, then Hearts is a good place. Young players can see a pathway through to the first team because boys are getting opportunities at that level.
“It’s great they’re getting opportunities. The other side is that they all want those opportunities. It will take some of them longer than others. The kids can get impatient at times. They want that breakthrough because their team-mates are getting a taste of the first team.
“They need to be good enough. We won’t put a 16-year-old in the first team just for the sake of doing it. He needs to be ready and playing at a high level for the under-20s, or the reserve team as it will be this year. The group who came through last year have a great mindset. It is a big thing stepping into the first team but I think a lot of them just look at it as a game of football. That takes the pressure out of it.
“I pushed them on a daily basis to make sure their intensity levels were high so that, when they did go across to train with the first team, they were able to handle it. For them all to go through and do really well was a bonus, but that’s not going to happen every year.”
Progressed from Hearts Under-15s to Under-17s quickly and is an adaptable player who can play several different positions. Riccarton coaches plan to settle him into one specific role over the next few months.
“Scott is a midfield player who can play centrally or sometimes on the right-hand side,” said Kirk. “ He can also play in the No.10 role, so he is quite versatile. Over a period of time we will figure out what is the best position for him. He has played in a few different areas for our under-17s and under-15s in recent seasons.”
A defensive type midfielder who likes to control the play from a deep-lying position. Likes to get on the ball and spray passes around the pitch to initiate attacks. He will sign his professional contract later this year when he turns 16.
“He is a central midfielder but more of a holder,” said Kirk. “He is a boy who plays deeper in the middle of the park and likes to get on the ball from there.”
A former Celtic youth who got his chance at Riccarton and seized it with both hands. He is eager to make his mark and showcase his competitive edge after signing professional terms.
“Aaron was at Celtic previously and he’s another central midfield player,” said Kirk. “He is comfortable on the ball and gets about the midfield area really well. He has a decent range of passing and is very competitive. I’m quite excited to see what he has got to offer.”
Not yet 16 so will sign professionally later this year when he reaches that age. “He is a wide-left player,” said Kirk. “Unfortunately, he has been out with a back injury for quite a bit of time. We’re hoping he will be back playing again in August at some point. He is technically very good on the ball and puts in good deliveries from wide areas. He’s an exciting prospect, although injuries have hampered him over the last year. We’re hoping he puts them behind him and kicks on a wee bit.”
Turns 16 in August but is joining professionally because he has left school. Leadership is one of his best skills in central defence. “He is a centre-back who has been in our academy for quite some time,” said Kirk. “He is still quite young in terms of his date of birth but he is a strong boy who is very competitive. He is vocal, he likes to talk and organise.”
A forward who made his first-team debut in the final game of last season at Kilmarnock. “Leeroy is dynamic, physically strong and quick. He can play out wide or as a striker,” said Kirk. “He causes problems just because he’s got pace. He is one we can refine a little bit in terms of the runs he makes. His attributes – physical power, strength and speed – give him opportunities. His finishing has improved over the years and we’re looking for more of that from him.”
Was on the bench for Hearts’ first team in the last game of the season against Kilmarnock. “He plays on the left-hand side as a wing-back or winger and came into the academy at the start of last season. He has done really well,” said Kirk. “He has good pace and is quite direct. He played for me in the under-20s and did really well so we have high hopes for him. He has a great attitude and work ethic.”
Handed a first-team debut from the start against Kilmarnock in the final game of last season and did not look out of place. “Cammy is a right-back who, at younger age groups, has done a job in midfield at times,” said Kirk. “At this level, I think Cammy is going to be a full-back or a wing-back. He is athletic and quick and can get up and down the touchline to deliver crosses from wide areas.”
A young central defender who uses his impressive physique to his advantage on the field. He can win possession but then likes to distribute from the back with the ball at his feet. “Dino plays centre-back. He is a big lad who is very physically strong and has a good range of passing,” said Kirk.