Hearts need Darren Murray and his endless supply of youth players now more than ever, as ruthless cost-cutting and lack of funding means more first-team opportunities for academy kids. You just know Murray will deliver. He’s been doing so for years. Three of his latest proteges came to prominence at Tynecastle on Saturday as Jason Holt, Jamie Walker and Dylan McGowan staked their claim for regular senior football. Holt and Walker are just 19, whilst McGowan is 21. There are plenty more where they came from, which is just as well given Hearts’ perilous financial predicament. Murray is vital to their future.
It is somewhat surprising that Hearts’ Under-20 coach, who doubles as player development manager, is not contracted to the club other than as a standard employee. His role is critical and his reputation is growing. Indeed, there may be a danger of that front entrance to Riccarton soon being darkened by vultures looking to prise Murray away along with a few senior players.
The man himself would never court attention. It isn’t his style. He performs his day-to-day job away from the public glare, working to develop young Hearts players and prepare them for first-team duty. The last 12 months have seen more academy graduates promoted than ever as the Edinburgh club, like every other, reduces its wage bill and looks to utilise the graduates of its youth academy. The next 12 months will see the youth team plundered even more due to tax bills and a £2 million funding shortfall.
Several high earners will leave Hearts between January and June next year and it will be down to Murray to provide replacements. He is already preparing the kids in question. Defender Brad McKay joined Stenhousemuir on loan this month to gain first-team experience in case he is needed in the New Year. Forward David Smith is already loaned to Raith Rovers.
Over the years, Murray has helped kick-start careers for many Hearts players having been Under-17 coach and Under-19 coach, the latter age-group becoming Under-20s this season. His list of proteges is seemingly never-ending: Ryan McGowan, Scott Robinson, Jason Holt, Andy Driver, Arvydas Novikovas, Denis Prychynenko, Jamie Walker, Kevin McHattie, Callum Paterson, Dale Carrick, Dylan McGowan, David Templeton, Jamie MacDonald, Eggert Jonsson, Lee Wallace, Jason Thomson, Gary Glen, Calum Elliot, Stephen Husband.
With such an impressive record, many within Scottish football’s coaching fraternity suspect Murray could easily operate at a higher level. Talented youngsters like Holt, Robinson and Walker were coached a technical style of football based around possession and movement by Murray and became an integral part of one of the strongest Hearts youth teams for several years. Now they have reached the holy grail of senior football, Murray is rebuilding once more.
“I remember when he first came down to Largs and he used to talk rather a lot,” recalled Donald Park, who is head of coach education at the Scottish Football Association and currently assisting Billy Stark with the senior national team. “I used to say, ‘for goodness sake shut up and let’s get on with it’, but I love him to death and I believe he’s a first-class coach. I like watching him working, I like his attitude to training and I like seeing his teams play. Darren has matured immensely as a coach and become much less animated on the touchline given his maturity and knowledge. I can’t speak highly enough of him.
“He does a fantastic job with the young players, helping to develop them. I think that’s the best part of the job. Darren’s benefit to the kids and the Hearts first team is huge. Whether he ever gets the opportunity to go, football is very funny that way. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. There are a lot of good coaches at youth level but everyone wants to work at first-team level. You wouldn’t deny him that if he got an opportunity. He’s a top-drawer coach right now.
“He’s absolutely right to have these ambitions but, at the same time, he’ll get great pride out of seeing all these kids he’s worked with playing in the first team. And they will all appreciate everything he’s done for them. He couldn’t have done it much better. Darren has come a long way. He’s improved immensely since he first came down to our courses at Largs. He’s become a top youth coach in the way he deals with players, his imagination for the game and his desire to learn the game. I think that’s shown over time.”
Murray’s philosophy has attracted admirers across the country with his teams playing attractive, entertaining football at all costs. Beyond Riccarton, some Hearts academy graduates have earned full international honours like Ryan McGowan, Novikovas, Jonsson and Wallace. Many others were recognised at youth international level, with Paterson earning his first Scotland Under-21 cap last week in Portugal in a team which also included Holt, McHattie and Smith.
Those who know Murray insist he would never take credit for players’ achievements individually, but there is no doubting his influence. He also has others at Hearts who helped him reach the level he is now at. “It’s a bit easier to play any type of football you want at younger levels than it is at first-team, where it’s life and death and managers need to win,” acknowledged Park. “There is definitely less pressure on youth coaches in that sense, but Darren’s philosophy is fantastic and Hearts’ philosphy is fantastic. It’s great that they recognised Darren.
“John McGlynn worked with Darren briefly before he left Hearts to join Raith Rovers. John Murray and John McGlynn need to take great credit for seeing the potential in Darren as a coach. They showed their faith and nurtured his ability greatly. Developing a coach doesn’t just happen. There are a lot of things that go together.
“James McDonaugh does a very good job at Hibs and is similar to Darren in the sense that they both came through the ranks working with younger age-group teams before they were appointed full-time. Sometimes it’s getting opportunities that’s the hard part.”