Peter Houston left Tannadice due to cost-cutting, whilst cutbacks at Tynecastle have seen five teenagers start each of Hearts’ last two matches. Both clubs are clearly heading in the same direction. United’s financial prudence may yet cost Paul Hegarty his job as first-team coach following the arrival of Jackie McNamara. However, he is sensible enough to acknowledge what is for the greater good of Scottish football. Replacing highly-paid mainstays with youth academy graduates is exciting and can only help the national game flourish. In some ways it hints at a throwback to the 1980s, when the likes of Kevin Gallacher, Billy McKinlay, John Robertson and Gary Mackay grew up at their respective clubs.
“In my day, when fans saw a young player coming through they got a real lift,” said Hegarty, a defensive stalwart for United between 1974 and 1990, who also had an 18-month spell as a reserve and youth team coach at Hearts under Jim Jefferies in the mid-1990s.
“If a player went to another club it was invariably Celtic or Rangers. The odd one went down south. Mostly the money was kept in Scottish football. When we sold Alex Cleland and Gary Bollan, for example, to Rangers, the money stayed in Scotland and we went out and bought somebody else from another division. The money was circulated around Scotland most of the time, but now that doesn’t happen.
“Players who are only at a club for two or three years don’t have the same involvement. When I played, guys had ten, 12, 14 or even 16 years with one club. That doesn’t happen now either because agents move players on as quickly as possible, and players can get three, four or five times their salary down in England. You can’t knock that. If you left a club in my day all you heard was ‘where’s your loyalty?’ Now fans realise it’s a short career and players need to make a living.”
Thankfully, a properly run youth academy provides replacements with the potential to emulate or even better those who have gone before. “This gives young players a platform,” said Hegarty of the route many Scottish clubs are now forced to go down. “They need to make their mark in the first team and stay there. Then they can have a career with their club or, if someone comes in, they can move on. At Dundee United, we’ve seen the likes of Craig Conway go to Cardiff City and David Goodwillie joining Blackburn Rovers. Those boys gave good service to United for a few years. Replacing them with young players gives the kids a bit of hope.
“Previously, clubs would say, ‘he’s not ready for first-team football so we’ll just go and buy someone’. Now most clubs are relying on their youth systems to generate players for the top team. I think that, in life generally, you’ve got to give people hope. If you’re a youngster at a really big club, will you get a chance in the first team? My answer would be ‘probably not’.”
Hegarty believes establishing a niche at a club like Hearts or United is the best way for a young player to flourish.
“If you want to make your mark, play with clubs like Hearts or Hibs or Dundee United. You are going to get opportunities there,” he continued. “Jamie Murphy went down south recently after several years playing consistently at Motherwell. Young boys see these players and it gives them hope. Most people will deliver given an opportunity like that. There’s nothing better than someone giving you a bit of hope and saying, ‘you’ve got a chance to make it here if you work hard. You’ve got the talent, can you handle the pressure?’”
“The games between United and Hearts of late have been very tight, there is very little between the two teams. They beat us in the League Cup quarter-final on penalties and in the SPL, apart from Celtic, everyone is beating everyone this year.
“Hearts are introducing more youngsters and United have always been renowned for bringing young players into the first team.
“It’s great for Scottish football because supporters can relate to their clubs more seeing kids come through the ranks.”