The 19-year-old went from outcast to outstanding on Sunday as he controlled the midfield in the 1-1 draw with Aberdeen. His poise on the ball was especially needed after Hearts were reduced to ten men with more than 20 minutes to go following Sean Clare’s red card. But it did not mean the midfielder stopped trying to be creative. He was constantly seeking to find an angle and play in team-mates.
It is very likely Stendel, pictured, has been convinced by a player who did not even feature in the squad in his first four games. “I was maybe at a disadvantage because he hadn’t seen me play previously,” explained Irving. “He had only seen me in training so maybe it’s my fault. I’ve maybe not done enough in training. I think Sunday has hopefully shown I am capable.”
“He wants people to get on the ball, pass and try to be creative,” he added. “We had a meeting before the game and it was about taking risks. I quite like that.”
It’s not perhaps the usual strategy when a team is attempting to lift themselves out of the mire. But it’s refreshing to hear. One criticism of Hearts in recent years is that the football has become too formulaic and staid. The fans certainly lapped up the more high-energy approach last weekend and, despite being pinned back by Aberdeen after taking a lead through Ryotaro Meshino, the players were given a rousing ovation at the end.
Irving suggested that Meshino’s strike, a gloriously opportunistic curling effort shortly after half-time, underlined the new approach under the German. Prior to Stendel’s arrival, he might not have even tried such an audacious shot.
“He wants people to take risks,” he said. “You saw Ryo’s goal, which was a great strike. He is practising that all the time. I’m not saying that’s a risk but maybe Ryo wouldn’t have had the confidence to take that shot previously. In the final third, he [Stendel] wants us taking risks.
“If you are one-against-one with an opponent, try something. If there is a killer pass, try it. We will all hopefully be in that area to win the ball back with the high press.”
It sounds good in theory. Whether Hearts can make it work in practice and for the long term, we will have to wait and see. Sunday’s performance was a pointer to better times ahead and Stendel and his players have plenty of time to refine things during the winter break. They return to action against Airdrie in the Scottish Cup before a trip to face Ross County in the league the following midweek. There is no time to waste as they seek to start clawing back the six-point gap between them and the safety of tenth place.
“We have a few days off and then we are back in,” said Irving. “We have two weeks until the Airdrie game, so I think we will be fully prepared for that. We will be working hard, getting fitter and understanding more of what the new manager wants. Hopefully it all pays off in the second half of the season.”
He knows that he may have some new faces for company when the season resumes. Not so long ago, when it seemed he was not on Stendel’s radar, he might have feared he would be one of those at risk of being shipped out. But his performance against Aberdeen has proved very timely. Indeed, the likely departure of Glenn Whelan, who has already been told he is free to find a new club, could mean extra responsibility being heaped on the teenager’s shoulders.
It is not so long ago when he appeared to be out in the cold. Now he could be pivotal in these vital, potentially fretful weeks to come.
Irving welcomes the idea that reinforcements will arrive this month. He claims no one can be complacent when it comes to fighting for a spot in the team. “It’s got to be expected,” he said. “We haven’t had a great first half of the season. A new manager has come in with his own ideas so we will need to wait and see who comes in. Everybody is playing for the futures so we will all be working hard.”