While injury denied Callum Paterson his expected inclusion in Gordon Strachan’s full squads for the upcoming friendlies against Czech Republic and Denmark, several of his Tynecastle colleagues were named in the under-21s. Jack Hamilton, John Souttar, Jordan McGhee and Sam Nicholson were all selected, along with Billy King, who is on loan to Rangers. Earlier in the week Liam Smith was also called up.
“I am really pleased for Liam,” said the manager who has been thrilled but unsurprised by the quality of performance served up by the teenager since he was elevated to the first team squad in the wake of injury to regular right-back Paterson.
“He’s played all the way through [Scotland age groups] and this is the next step, so that’s great. He probably would have come into our [first] team earlier but for Callum Paterson, who has been doing so well in that position, so Liam has had to bide his time.”
But both the manager and player were confident his time would come.
Neilson added: “In the summer and in January, we had a lot of teams from the Championship and League One who were all desperate to take him. But we kept a hold of him as I felt there would be an opportunity to put him in, and I was proved right.
“I wasn’t surprised with the way he coped with the step up to the first team as I have worked with him for a long time. I saw him coming through with the 20s and I know he is a good full-back who does things right and in the next few years, we will see a lot more of him.”
The number of players included in the Scotland set-up is a pat on the back for a club making a conscious effort to improve their youth development, added Neilson.
“The whole ethos of the club is to develop young players, whether it be players from the academy or players coming in from abroad,” he said. “So, to have so many in the 21s team is great. I’d like to try and get more in the full squad but I think that will take a wee bit of time for them to develop and make the step up.
“From the ones we’ve got, there’s probably three or four that could make the first-team step eventually.
It definitely helps for the recruitment of the academy, if we can go and speak to young players, even all the way down to under 8s and recruiting boys at 14 and from the full-time clubs at 16, 17 – it helps. It shows they will get to come and play first and foremost and then it’s up to who can make the grade in the 21s and the full team.”
Far from it being a purple patch, Neilson claimed the club’s commitment to their youth set-up means that there are more promising players coming along.
“I think there will be more and more, we’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years, since administration, trying to build the academy. From eight up to about under-14s there’s a really good batch, then we have a year where we’ve only got three or four that are good.
“After that we go up to 18s and we’re really good again. With the period in administration and with the problems, the investment in the academy came away and we lost that group of players but now we’re trying to recruit from outwith so there’s always a continual group coming through.”
Those under-21 European qualifiers against France and Northern Ireland during the international week will be followed by a taxing spell domestically. Provided the players come through their international sojourns unscathed, they will then hope to be involved in head to heads with Celtic, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Aberdeen within the space of a week.
Bearing that in mind, some managers would be unhappy to see so many of their players called away, running the risk of injury but Neilson prefers to view it as another stage of the youngsters’ development.
“They’d be playing here anyway, we would be training right through. It’s better they go and play and get that experience. They’re going over to France on the Thursday to play against one of the best under-21 teams. They might be sitting here thinking they’re doing really well then go to France and get a realisation that they’ve got a really long way to go before they get anywhere near the top.”