Hearts star factory sets a shining example

NEW Year, new dawn. Hearts’ principal aim for 2012 is youthful prosperity with a host of academy graduates expected to replace experienced mainstays in the first team. Kids like Jason Holt, Kevin McHattie and Denis Prychynenko are the club’s lifeblood, but they would be in no position to seize the opportunities awaiting them without the Hearts Youth Development Committee.

But for the HYDC, there would be no Riccarton football factory. At least, not in its present thriving state. As Scott Robinson, Ryan McGowan, David Templeton and Gordon Smith prepare to cement themselves at senior level this year, the next generation is already hot on their heels. Holt, Prychynenko, Jamie Walker and David Smith are currently on loan at Raith Rovers, McHattie is at Alloa, with Rob Ogleby and Mark Ridgers at East Fife. All were farmed out for first-team experience and finances dictate their promotion may come sooner than expected back at base.

That thought is exactly what Calum Robertson, chairman of the HYDC, lives for. His committee is a fiercely independent body generating its own funds solely to subsidise Hearts’ youth development programme. They pay for equipment, youth team pre-season tours and even funded McHattie’s transfer from Dunfermline to Hearts in 2010 at a cost in the region of £20,000.

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The committee is made up of fans and independent businessmen whose common interest is the long-term future of Hearts. From Gary Locke to Robbie Neilson to Craig Gordon to Robinson, they have been staunchly behind the progress of the club’s youngsters. Working in tandem with academy director and new director of football John Murray (below), plus under-19 coach Darren Murray, they are now eager to plough more money into Riccarton. The notion that an increasing number of prodigious players will gain first-team exposure this year only increases their motivation.

“We work directly with John Murray. We trust John’s judgment,” explained Robertson. “We’ve never refused to buy anything for him if he’s asked us. We sign the cheques, nothing goes through Hearts, we’re an independent body. Right back to people like Gary Locke there have been kids coming through the academy system at Hearts.

“It’s not up to us to disagree with John or Darren, it’s up to us to fund them and we want to get more money through to them. John is on our committee and attends all our meetings. Anything he wants he asks us for personally and he and I have to sign it off. We’re trying to run it as close to a business as we can, but we’re relying on the supporters for donations from various organisations like the Hearts Shareholders’ Association, the Federation of Hearts Supporters’ Clubs and Jamboskickback, the fans’ internet forum. They all donate money direct to us and we are all trying to work closer together.

“I’m quite ‘in your face’ and I think partly because of that the club have been very supportive of us. We do have a link with the club now and they understand what we’re doing. Hopefully they appreciate that we’ve put in a fair amount of money. Sometimes it’s thousands of pounds, sometimes it’s less. But we aren’t a bottomless pit.

“I get a buzz watching Hearts on a Saturday and seeing the likes of Scott Robinson in the team. We had Kevin McHattie make his debut against Aberdeen earlier in the season. He’s one we know we’ve had an involvement in because he was the first under-17 player we funded. The others have been younger. It was great seeing him come on to the park that day because we can then say to people that the HYDC does work.

“I don’t think the academy gets as much credit as it deserves. Despite all the things you hear, John and Darren have a bunch of really level-headed boys up there. When I’m up there watching the under-19s it’s a such a great feeling because you know what you’re doing is working. Even when the three young boys went to Raith recently, people were worried. The under-19s’ next game was away to Celtic, who won the league last year, yet Hearts beat them even without Holt, Walker and Smith.”

The HYDC does not currently receive proceeds when a home-grown player is transferred on. “It’s not happened yet but we’ve had discussions with the club about it,” said Robertson.

Fundraising is the main priority and the HYDC hosts events throughout the year to ensure money is available when the academy requires it. “It’s only recently that we’ve started paying the compensation fees for young players joining Hearts from other clubs. John came to us and said, ‘I’d like to bring a player in, can you pay for it?’ We are all part of Hearts and we all want the best for Hearts but we are independent from the club. If Hearts don’t have it, we’ll pay the money if John wants a certain player brought in. It’s small amounts but we’re dedicated to the future of Hearts.

“Things we pay for can vary from analysis equipment to heart monitors to pre-season tours for the boys. Normally we pay for them to go to the Foyle Cup in Ireland, previously it was the Milk Cup. We couldn’t do any of it without large donations from the other organisations I’ve mentioned. Sometimes, after discussions with John, they might agree to pay for something and he’ll tell them to give the money to the HYDC and it gets paid for that way. It’s just so it doesn’t get lost in other things that might be happening.

“We’re continually trying to raise funds with events like our annual Burns Supper, Young Player of the Year Dinner, annual golf day and a sportsman’s breakfast. Our young player of the year is adopted as Hearts’ official young player of the year. The future looks like it’s going to be youth and the supporters’ organisations have picked up on that. If they know the money is going direct through us then they can say to their members that they’ve funded heart monitors or analysis equipment or whatever. Rather than just giving Hearts a donation and not knowing where it’s going to go.

“We want to be the link between supporters and Hearts. I’m confident that, once people become aware of what we’re doing and maybe attend an event or two, they’ll stay with us. Our events are very professional, it’s just a matter of getting people involved with us. One of our biggest incomes is through the monthly draw, which takes place on the pitch during the first home game of every month. It’s £5 a month and we pay out £650 in prize money. I’d like to get more people involved in that because it is only £5. All you need to do is log on to www.hydc.co.uk and click on the bouncing ball on the left of the page.

“We have our website name on the strips of the academy teams from under-12s through to under-17s. We now have stuff in the matchday programmes too. So we are trying to get out there and let the fans know what we do because now youth is going to become even more important.”

There are many satisfying moments for the HYDC committee members which don’t always attract publicity. Often, it can be a player’s performance at under-19 level or an expression of gratitude from a youth coach.

“At our Young Player of the Year dinner earlier this year, a special award was given to Denis Prychynenko,” recalled Robertson. “It was the George Nicholson recognition award in honour of the late HYDC chairman. As his name was announced, every one of his team-mates stood to applaud him. He’s a young kid living in a foreign country and making a success of it and we’re all trying to help him. That proves the academy system is working.

“My wife works at Riccarton and she says it’s sometimes a nightmare to get Denis out of the place. Training has long since finished yet he’s still booting balls about practising himself even though other people have booked the facility. Other players fed off that dedication and it had an effect on the whole team so he deserved that award.

“Our duty is to support John Murray in what he’s doing because it’s the future of Hearts. John hasn’t got a lot wrong. If you can produce on average two players a year for the first team then your academy is working. Nobody brings nine, ten, 11 players through. I think Hearts consistently bring two players through into the senior squad. As Hearts supporters, sometimes there isn’t a great deal to be proud of. But the academy has never waned. That is something to be proud of and I think we should be singing from the rooftops.”

n Next on the HYDC fundraising calendar is the annual “It’s not just a Burns Supper” - a relaxed tribute to Rabbie Burns, plus music and poetry from the Poosie Nansie Burns Club. The event takes place on Sunday, February 19 in Tynecastle’s Gorgie Suite. Tickets cost £20. Visit www.hydc.co.uk or email [email protected] for further information.

• The HYDC Young Player of the Year Awards dinner will take place on Saturday, April 7. also in the Gorgie Suite. This will be to announce the Under-17 Player of the Year, Under-19 Player of the Year and the overall Young Player of the Year as voted for by Hearts supporters. Visit www.hydc.co.uk or email [email protected] for details.