Some see it as a get-out clause for poor results. If he can point to fielding young players as a mitigating factor then it eases the pressure on the manager, who is able to claim he is looking to the future.
It’s an unfair, niggardly assumption and having seen the evidence of Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, particularly in the first half, the question should be: why wouldn’t he turn to these players? And why not do it more often? Harry Cochrane’s inclusion in the 1-1 draw with Hibs was less of a surprise than that of the appearance of 17-year-old Connor Smith, who was making his first start at this level.
But it felt like a breath of fresh air for supporters who were beginning to wonder what had happened to the brave new world of last season. It became very quickly apparent that Hearts were playing the kind of football many of their fans have been crying out for. One sweeping move in the first-half from the left to right flank involving Cochrane and Smith, who was playing off striker Uche Ikpeazu, led to a good chance for Jake Mulraney, who delayed a shot then overhit a pass. It was a pleasing signal of Hearts’ bold(er) intentions.
Recent grumbles about form and style of play perhaps helped force Levein’s hand. He’s shown himself to be a strong advocate of youth but he knows that with this wish to blend youngsters into the team comes responsibility.
The reason for Cochrane’s limited first-team game-time this season is injury as well as understandable caution about over-use at such a tender age. The midfielder only turned 18 last week. It’s still hard to credit but he was just 16 when he memorably scored the opener against Celtic in last season’s 4-0 win. He made 25 appearances in total during the campaign.
Cochrane came on for the last nine minutes of the 1-0 win over the Parkhead side at Tynecastle earlier this season and has featured only a further five times, including Sunday. His last start prior to the derby was against Rangers in December. However, he injected some life into Hearts when he came on as substitute against the same side ten days ago to issue a reminder of what he can do.
Levein has sent several youngsters out on loan to continue their education. A run of poor results and poor displays from other, more experienced players convinced him that Sunday was the right time and place to draw back the curtain of the youth academy once more.
Also tempting him was the Reserve Cup final win over Motherwell at the start of this month involving players like Cochrane, Rory Currie and Lewis Moore. Smith came off the bench that evening, which is a reminder that, despite being captain of the Scotland Under-17s, he is still very much making his way in the game.
Levein clearly rates him. His faith was rewarded with a strong performance before Smith understandably tired in the second half. One touch on the near touchline to send Mulraney on his way was sublime. Cochrane lasted a few minutes longer than his younger colleague. With Hearts by this stage falling out of the game to a worrying degree, Levein rightly removed him from the fray too.
The manager spoke about the reasons why we have seen so little of Cochrane after the 3-1 defeat by Rangers earlier this month. “He’s had a really, really difficult season,” he said. “He has had five different injuries. It has taken him a while to get him back to a place where I feel [I can use him]. I also have to be careful with him; he is not the most robust of players. He is tough but he is not the most physically capable of defending himself, hence he has picked up injuries.”
Cochrane has returned to form and fitness at just the right time. After Sunday’s game, Levein said he did not even consider it a risk to pitch the player into the heat of such a battle ahead of the likes of Olly Lee. He initially outshone far more experienced colleagues.
“I do not worry about him and I felt at the start of the game he controlled the midfield area,” said Levein. “He is going to be a fantastic player in the fullness of time. He has always trained with us and if he is fully fit most times he has played.”
Levein, aware the player has already excelled against Celtic, is clearly considering Cochrane for a cup final place. While the noise and colour of Hampden would prove another step up, it’s not as if the teenager hasn’t already demonstrated he knows how to handle such an intense occasion.