Manager Craig Levein may still be pondering whether to throw Harry Cochrane into the deep end with a first start in the Edinburgh derby tomorrow evening, but team-mate John Souttar believes the 16-year-old has the ability to thrive in the red-hot atmosphere.
The two players shared the man-of-the-match awards after Hearts survived a gruelling 90-minute battle with St Johnstone in front of an 18,500 crowd at Murrayfield to move the club up into fifth place.
Thoughts quickly transfer to tomorrow night and the first meeting of the season with rivals Hibernian, who are now behind Hearts in the Premiership table, and whether Levein will continue to give youth a chance in this emotive fixture.
Souttar knows Cochrane’s position well. He was also 16 when he made his debut, starting for Dundee United in an away match at Aberdeen in January 2013. Though he had to wait almost three months for his next match, he soon became a fixture in the squad, making a further eight appearances in a seven-week period to finish that campaign.
After three years playing regularly at Tannadice, Souttar moved to Hearts in 2016’s January transfer window. Rather than being distraught that a promising young player was allowed to leave for a modest six-figure fee, many Dundee United fans were happy to see the back of the defender, citing a perceived lack of commitment amid poor performances as United struggled at the wrong end of the table.
Having endured such difficulties, and come out the other side a more mature and rounded player for it, Souttar has a different perspective than most when it comes to youngsters such as Cochrane breaking into first-team squads. The first few games aren’t the toughest, despite the lack of experience. It’s when the honeymoon period runs out that pressure begins to take its toll. Fans start to recognise flaws in a player’s game, while the weight of expectation hangs heavy on still developing shoulders.
“When you first break into the side, that’s the easy part of it. Everyone is looking at the good parts of your game and being positive. It’s after a while and a few games in the first team when some challenges can come. But I’m sure he has the mentality to deal with that,” said Souttar, pictured, of his team-mate.
“There’s no reason to think Harry wouldn’t handle the Edinburgh derby but that’s the gaffer’s decision to make. I’m sure, if he was to play, he would handle it no bother – and sometimes it is even better when you are younger.
“You play without pressure and you don’t really know the other, painful, side of the game. I’ve been there myself, when you are just enjoying your game, oblivious to everything else. It’s probably a good thing.”
There’s a simple reason Cochrane might get the nod tomorrow. He is a good footballer. As Craig Levein said in his post-match comments, he is maybe the third best player in the engine room behind Don Cowie and Arnaud Djoum, both of whom are likely to miss the encounter with Hibs through injury. Cochrane’s absence from the line-up on Saturday, having started the previous two fixtures against Dundee and Ross County, was not surprising given the opposition. With Murray Davidson and Paul Paton in their ranks, St Johnstone are a side capable of bullying the opposing in the centre, and their physicality may have proved too much for the lean Cochrane. However, with Davidson absent and Paton on the bench, there was no hesitancy by Levein to throw him on for the start of the second half in place of Prince Buaben, who endured a torturous opening 45 minutes.
To say Cochrane changed the game would be an exaggeration – after all, it was a terrible match before and after his introduction – but there was no doubt Hearts began to emerge as the stronger of the two sides and the only one who looked capable of winning the game.
Cochrane’s composure in possession aided that improvement, and he played a significant role in the goal, seeing his shot from distance controlled in the box by Kyle Lafferty, who scored with the help of a deflection.
Regardless of whether he gets the nod at Easter Road, this is a player with a big future in the game.
“Harry is an unbelievable player in training on the ball. For a 16-year-old he has come into the side and nothing fazes him. I think he can go wherever he wants to go. He’s that good,” said Souttar.
“You don’t want to big him up too much, but he’s not the type of lad who will get carried away. He’s a top boy, always smiling and positive.”