RAITH ROVERS continue to play a pivotal role in developing Hearts’ youth academy players. For fine-tuning before first-team promotion, youngsters are dispatched to John McGlynn to learn the cut-throat side of Scottish football. The plan appears to paying dividends.
Jason Holt and Denis Prychynenko, after completing short-term loans at Raith, were unused substitutes for Hearts at Inverness on Saturday as their education programme enters its final stage. Regular involvement with the first-team squad is a pre-requisite to establishing yourself at senior level. Ask Christophe Berra, Eggert Jonsson or Scott Robinson.
Whilst Holt and Prychynenko were in the Highlands, fellow Riccarton academy pupils Jamie Walker and David Smith were in Kirkcaldy playing in Raith’s 2-2 draw with Falkirk. The latter pair have remained with McGlynn to further their development before they return to Hearts.
The Raith connection will continue, at least whilst McGlynn is manager at Stark’s Park. The 50-year-old earned enjoyed ten years in various coaching roles at Tynecastle and consequently finds himself in a privileged position. He is trusted implicitly to enhance the progress of Riccarton’s star pupils, and is in the ideal role to do so in charge of a First Division club.
He believes it won’t be long before Holt and Prychynenko make an impact back at base. The skills and technical ability learned at Hearts are now complemented by an awareness of how to bite and scratch for league points. Raith offer the youngsters a vital insight into the competitive nature of the game, so that they are fully primed when Hearts need them.
“We’re always looking to get players from Hearts,” said McGlynn. “I do have a good relationship with everyone there and the loans are a good vehicle for all three parties. It helps the parent club, the player himself gets something from it, and in turn it helps Raith Rovers.
“No matter how long the players are here for, they are guaranteed to learn and pick things up. It’s hard work to compete at this level and they will have taken that on board. They’re growing up and they’re learning. The four we’ve had, I have to say their attitude is excellent and you can see that they’ve been well coached. They are very technically gifted players and they’ve added a different dimension to our team, but they are picking other things up at Raith Rovers.
“What they are learning is the other side of the game, the dirty side if you like. They have to roll their sleeves up and work extremely hard for the team. They need to keep their shape because that side of the game is very important at this level. The First Division is a very competitive league and a high standard. You only need to look at how often First Division teams put SPL sides out of cup competitions to prove that.”
Prychynenko, a 19-year-old German-born midfielder of Ukrainian descent, spent November and December with Raith before requiring a hernia operation. His recovery in less than a month astounded McGlynn. “He played every game for us until the operation a few days before Christmas. He’s back very quickly and it’s been remarkable for him to recover in that time. We had another player who went for a hernia op a week before Denis, and he’ll probably return to our squad for the first time this weekend.
“Denis is big and strong and he’s powerful in central midfield. It was maybe an eye-opener to him just how competitive the First Division is compared with Under-19 football. It’s great to play with Hearts Under-19s and pass the ball about but the cut-throat First Division is entirely different.
“I think he learned quickly that he had to mix it with opponents and be physically strong. He found that side of it new but he ended up winning headers for us and closing players down a lot. You can see he’s got a good range of passing and he can take a great free-kick, although he didn’t get much chance to show that with us, unfortunately.”
Holt, still only 18, is arguably the brightest prospect to emerge from Riccarton since its inception in 2004. Last season’s SPL Under-19 Player of the Year, he stands out as a technically gifted attacking midfielder with all the attributes to make a team tick.
“Jason is a really gifted player, a naturally skilful player with good pace and great feet. There is no doubt he’s going to have a big future,” continued McGlynn. “I think he needs to play almost in a specialised position off the front to get the best from him. We tried to give him that role. Once we weren’t getting results we changed the system and Jason didn’t quite fit into that. He is small and light and his strengths aren’t battling and scrapping, which we have to do at the lower end of the First Division.
“There is absolutely no doubt about the quality Jason has. When it comes to rolling the sleeves up, what goes against Jason is the physical stuff. That’s not to say he won’t make it because on the ball he is excellent. When all the young Hearts lads were playing in the team, we felt we were maybe too easy to play against and we had to become harder to beat.”
Walker and Smith, both 18, are expected to help fill voids left by impending departures over the next six months as the Tynecastle hierarchy cut costs. For now, they are progressing nicely in Fife.
“David has played wide right and up front for us and he’s shown a great attitude and willingness to work, listen and learn,” explained McGlynn. “Jamie is what we expected. He’s a very skilful player who glides past defenders. He’s got good feet and good pace. He’s a threat every time he gets the ball. There was an initial reaction within our team in November when these boys all arrived within a short space of time. That was great. Then we lost a couple of games and had to change things around. We put David up front and went for a stronger midfield in the games against Partick and Ayr around Christmas time. Since then we’ve brought in Pat Clarke and Damian Casalinuovo to give us other options up front.
“It wasn’t the easiest time for a group of young boys to come in. Our team’s been struggling down the bottom of the league and the weather hasn’t been conducive to good football. But they gave everyone a lift with their quality.”
When the time comes for them to stake a claim in the Hearts first team, rest assured they will be better players for their thorough grounding – both in Edinburgh and Kirkcaldy.