Story of Aidan Denholm and Hearts: Being released, looking for bank jobs to starring in memorable European night

A couple of months ago, Aidan Denholm was looking into jobs in the finance sector after his football career looked to be on the wane. But, on Thursday, in a fairytale turnaround in fortunes, he deposited a European experience into his memory bank and produced a performance that insures interest in him will only rise.

The Hearts youngster, who had been at the club since he was eight, was one of five players who were deemed surplus to requirements by former Gorgie boss Robbie Neilson. Served notice at the beginning of the year, they were released in June, yet just weeks later, the midfielder – who spent the second half of last term on loan at League Two outfit East Fife – had been offered a reprieve by his former B team gaffer-turned Technical Director Steven Naismith. In a sliding doors moment, job hunting in the real world was replaced by pre-season training and a determination to make the most of his second chance.

Under the Tynecastle lights, he delivered a dynamic and mature display which had grandfather Bobby welling up, and his mum Jill and dad Paul bursting with pride, while he was unable to wipe the beaming grin off his face. Starting Hearts’ Europa Conference League qualifier against Rosenborg as a replacement for the injured Peter Haring, he was a notable contributor as the Tynecastle side wrote their names in club history by overcoming a first-leg deficit to progress to the next round of continental competition for the first time since 1991/92.

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“I was only told I was starting earlier that day and it is one of those you dream of,” recalled Denholm. “Then, to get the win and get through to the next round is amazing. I looked at the clock and it was 60 minutes and we’d got the second goal but I was thinking ‘jeez, I am knackered!’. You could probably tell. But you dig in because it’s all about the win.

Aidan Denholm put in an assured performance during Hearts' 3-1 win over Rosenborg at Tynecastle on Thursday.Aidan Denholm put in an assured performance during Hearts' 3-1 win over Rosenborg at Tynecastle on Thursday.
Aidan Denholm put in an assured performance during Hearts' 3-1 win over Rosenborg at Tynecastle on Thursday.

“I would never have dreamed I would be playing in a big European night here so when you get that chance, you've just got to try to take it. Playing alongside Cammy [Devlin] made it easier because he just talks you through the game. But, the boys have all been brilliant with me, saying: ‘You’ve got this chance, now you’ve just got to take it’.

“The mindset does change when you get told you are leaving. My mum and I were talking about it the other day. We were looking for jobs not that long ago so to be playing in Europe for Hearts is a bit surreal. I was looking at working in a bank because that’s where my mum works. It was one of those: ‘can you help me get a job?’ My agent was doing bits in the background as well and I got a trial at Wigan. But then I spoke to Naisy and I got the chance to come back here.”

The call came as the 19-year-old headed back up from Wigan. Naimsith had just been appointed technical director and while he was aware of his attributes as his former development coach, he had also been impressed by Denholm’s dedication and the extra training sessions he put in even after he learned he would be punted. And, having given him minutes against Rosenborg away, and in Sunday’s league match with Kilmarnock, he showed real faith by adding him to the starting line-up as Hearts saw off the Norwegians 3-1 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate.

The club had the experience of Conference League group stage football last term but Denholm didn’t travel with the team. “I went to all the home games,” said the lifelong Hearts fan. “Even when I got told the news [I was being released] I was still coming along to games to support the boys. They are different class and when Naisy got the job on an interim basis I would come to the games to support him.”

Denholm was on loan at East Fife last season and looked set to leave Hearts.Denholm was on loan at East Fife last season and looked set to leave Hearts.
Denholm was on loan at East Fife last season and looked set to leave Hearts.

Now he is the one being roared on from the stands and he hopes this is just the start. “We are through to the next round and we have just got to focus on the next tie. If we can get through there then it’s group stage football and that’s what this club should be aiming for. If we get through there it would be great.”PAOK, of Greece await them in the next round but first they face League Cup action against Partick Thistle on Sunday, which Denholm hopes will provide him with more time to impress. “It’s not about proving a point for me,” said Denholm. “It was about getting a chance and taking it. I’ve got management like Naisy and Frankie [McAvoy, head coach] and Gordy [Forrest, first team coach] who have given me my chance – I have to take it. It’s credit to the coaching team to trust a 19-year-old in a game like this.”

There was a momentary scare in the first half when a determined challenge demonstrated his commitment but earned him a yellow card. On another night it might have been red. “It just happened so fast, someone took a bad touch and I just tried to react to it,” he explained. “It was a wee heart in the mouth moment but I felt that other than that, I did fairly decent. It was a big occasion and it was all about the win.”

It prompted a quick pep talk from captain Lawrence Shankland and, to his credit, the otherwise assured Denholm did not let the incident impinge on his game. “It was one of those nights where you have to try to stay as calm as you can. It was a great win and one you dream of but I had to try to stay as focused as I could.”

One that he dreamed of but could never have imagined just a couple of months ago.