Michael Smith has seen fear in the eyes of the Hearts starlets – but rarely on the football pitch.
The Tynecastle side has been augmented by a string of youngsters who have come through the club’s academy ranks, and they were all put through the wringer on Friday as Hearts senior squad members charged them with putting on a Christmas sing-song.
Something of a tradition, it is considered a good way to test the character of the kids but the Northern Ireland international said it was the first time he had seen the headline-grabbing teenagers look uncomfortable.
“It is a bit of fun and a bit of tradition to get the young boys to do something. Wee Hendo [Euan Henderson] was giving it a bit. He wasn’t too bad. It was all Christmas songs.
“They are doing duets. I’m going to put Jamie Brandon and Harry Cochrane on Instagram so a few of the fans should see that. Harry was more nervous there than he was on Sunday [when played and scored against Celtic]! It’s ridiculous.”
The lack of trepidation in the youngsters’ play has been earning them rave reviews, and while manager Craig Levein has been forced to look towards the club’s academy to fill gaps left by injuries and suspensions, Smith says the kids are there on merit.
“The gaffer is playing them and that is testament to how good they are. Even wee Ant [Anthony McDonald], he came in against Dundee and was man of the match and that assist was fantastic and then on Sunday, he came on and did great so we have got three or four young lads who are doing brilliantly well.”
It remains early days but Smith is predicting big things for the graduates, some of whom may be asked to step it up yet again in the capital derby against Hibs, on Wednesday. For those who don’t, including 16-year-old Cochrane, who will miss out through suspension after being sent off against St Johnstone yesterday, Smith believes it is only a matter of time until they are enjoying massive games on a regular basis.
“Wee Harry has been training with us since pre-season so I knew he was brilliant and Jamie Brandon is a few years older than him and he is going to be a fantastic full-back, he has a fantastic career ahead of him,” said Smith, who is a doubt for the Hibs game after sustaining a hamstring injury in Perth.
“Harry is a young looking lad but he has great ability and I’m sure there will be loads of clubs after him in January and if not, then in the summer. But I think Hearts would be silly to let him go now. He needs to stay. If I had any advice for him it would be to stay here and play games and then when you are a lot better you can move on.
“If he keeps playing the way he is then he will play games. It is a fact. He can get experience here and you only get better with big games and he can get that here. He will progress and will get better and hopefully his goal is to play in the highest leagues and he has the ability to go and do that so fair play to him.”
Cochrane is one of several teenagers who have been given a taste of first team action this term and while his strike to open the scoring against Celtic last weekend – his first senior goal for the club – earned the plaudits, he is not the only one imbuing the team with a fresh lease of life.
The older players have been valuable, passing on knowledge and guiding the kids through games but Smith concedes that the integration of the youngsters into the squad has been mutually beneficial.
“They are great lads, they haven’t got a care in the world. They are just enjoying their football and that rubs off on the more experienced players. They make us enjoy our football a lot more and it is great to see.
“As you progress through your career you get a bit older, wiser and more experienced. You start to realise what the game actually means to people and you will feel more pressure. That is why you usually see young lads come through and do so well straight away, because they don’t have a care in the world.”
Smith says he did not turn professional until he was 21, laughing at how different things were for him as a 16-year-old compared to the lads who were serenading them at the Riccarton training ground on Friday.
“I was not like that. I was floating about street corners, kicking balls at shop windows but these boys are in training with international players every day and it is a different world to when I was 16 but it is great to see them taking that opportunity by the scruff of the neck.
“It helps that we have the changing room that we have. Everyone gets on and we don’t push the young boys aside, we bring them in. We integrate them into the group and they have taken to that well.”
With guys such as Smith, captain Christophe Berra, Don Cowie, Kyle Lafferty and Aaron Hughes all older and wiser, the man who filled in at centre half against the defending champions last Sunday, despite never having played that position previously, says there is an almost subconscious paternal-style nurturing of the newcomers.