Craig Levein has shown throughout his managerial career that he isn’t afraid to give youth a chance to shine in the first team. He’s very much in the ‘if they’re good enough, they’re old enough’ to start camp. That said, his hand has been forced more than he would have liked this season due to a lengthy, bordering on calamitous, injury list the club has had to contend with.
With all roads leading towards Hampden in six days time, this afternoon’s Scottish Cup dress rehearsal was a match both sides – Hearts probably more out of the two – could have done without.
Nevertheless, it was another opportunity for Levein to see some of his rising stars in action, on a day when champions Celtic celebrated their latest title win in front of 60,000. It came as little surprise to see Connor Smith, Andy Irving and Aaron Hickey given the nod from the start in what was a dead rubber match as far as the Jambos were concerned.
However, it’s not the first time Levein has afforded Smith a start in the first team this term. He was thrown right in at the deep end of last month’s Edinburgh derby, a 1-1 draw at Easter Road. It was deemed a gamble by the majority of supporters playing Smith against their Capital rivals given they were still in the hunt for fifth place, not to mention a fear he would be overawed by the occasion. He wasn’t.
The 17-year-old was Hearts’ main attacking outlet that day with his forays into the penalty box and clever touches bringing his team-mates into play.
Smith didn’t have as big an impact at Celtic Park as he did in Leith but Hickey, a year younger than Smith, was a sound inclusion in the left full-back position. Given he allowed Mikey Johnston far too much time to steady himself before rifling the hosts in front after just two minutes, the youngster’s confidence could have been shot to pieces. Instead, he dusted himself down, took a deep breath and embraced the occasion. As the minutes wore on, Hickey gradually started to impose himself more has Hearts sprayed the ball around with confidence. In truth, he found it tough going against Celtic substitute Karamoko Dembele – also 16 – in the second 45 but he can be more than happy after an impressive display in a maroon jersey.
Irving also wasn’t shy to put his foot on the ball despite coming up against the likes of Olivier Ntcham and Nir Biton. He looked steady in the visitors’ midfield and carries a real presence. Pending no further drama to the Gorgie men’s injury list and key men Peter Haring, Arnaud Djoum and Uche Ikpeazu recover in time, it’s unlikely they will have much of a role to play at Hampden next weekend. Mind you, given the misfortune Hearts have suffered this season, Levein might not have a choice.
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