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International Men of Mystery

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Morning everyone. Another interlull has passed, club football is back and while Hearts had no representatives in any senior international squads to worry about the fitness of (ironically because the only candidate who came close to a call-up was already injured) there were still a number of first-team members on U21 duty. Luckily, all seem to have returned physically unharmed ahead of today’s trip to Glasgow although, for one or two of them, it seems the experience of playing international football against some of the brightest young talents in Europe has been a painful reminder of their infrequent participation at club level.

After drawing plaudits for a string of saves against France U21s last Thursday, Jack Hamilton spoke the other day about his current situation and the difficulties of breaking into the Hearts first team ahead of Neil Alexander. With the incumbent keeper looking likely to sign a new deal this summer, Hamilton could have longer to wait for an extended run in the team, which begs the question of what his best course of action is from here.

At 22 years old, his relatively short career thus far has been restricted to seven Hearts first-team appearances and intermittent loan spells at various part-time lower league clubs. The more regular game time for Hamilton has come in the U20s Development League, though having experienced the big game buzz at both international and club level, it is hardly surprising that the young keeper is itching to sample it more often:

“That’s the first time I’ve really had game time for a while in front of a big crowd and a good atmosphere in a game that means something instead of under-20 football. It was the first time I’d really played in that kind of game since the last Scotland Under-21 campaign. It’s been hard. I just want to learn from that. I need game time to try to improve.”

It is hard not to sympathise with Hamilton’s predicament. There would certainly be few complaints if Robbie Neilson was to carry on with Alexander as his number one for the foreseeable future, as long as the 38-year old is fit and sharp enough to put in the kind of performances that have seen him register an impressive raft of clean sheets so far this season.

However, while Alexander may be the older, experienced head we need to guide the young, raw defence currently in front of him, he is not a long-term option in that position. If there are no plans to bring Hamilton into the first team fold soon, it seems counter-productive to leave a player of his potential to fester on the bench or in uncompetitive reserve games, especially when the club’s blueprint for the future is one based on effective youth development. What happens over the summer could, therefore, be crucial to Hamilton’s own development and it’s certainly an issue Neilson seems to have down as a priority come the summer:

“I’ve had numerous conversations with Jack and I know he is desperate to play. He is a great kid and a great goalkeeper, but it is just the nature of playing in that position that you need to bide your time. I think he is potentially the natural successor to Neil…we’ll see how the season progresses and if there’s an opportunity to put him in then we’ll look to do that…we can’t do anything with regards to loaning him out as we only have Neil and Jack. Come the summer, it’s something we might look at.”

While I’m sure there are benefits of Hamilton staying put next season and learning from his more senior colleague, a look at Hearts’ recent history (as well as current examples of keepers at similar stages of their careers) would suggest there is more to be gained from an uninterrupted season-long loan move to a Championship club. Alexander’s Tynecastle predecessor Jamie MacDonald, for example, had already enjoyed a season-and-a-half-long loan spell with Queen of the South by the time he was Hamilton’s age, during which time he made over 50 competitive first-team appearances and played in a Scottish Cup final.

Then you’ve got Aberdeen’s Danny Rogers and St Johnstone’s Zander Clark, both of whom are Hamilton’s age yet are some way ahead of the Hearts understudy as far as first-team experience is concerned, having each now played two full seasons at Championship level. Rogers’ development, in particular, seems to have gained such momentum that many expect him to claim the starting gloves at Aberdeen next season when he returns from Falkirk: a compelling case for the Hearts management team to set Hamilton up with something similar while bringing in another experienced keeper as Alexander’s backup.

Meanwhile, another youngster whose ambition has been fuelled further by his experience with the Scotland U21s is Jordan McGhee. The subject of McGhee’s future is one that seems to have been visited a lot this season and looked to be reaching a conclusion in January, before a proposed deadline day loan move to Middlesbrough broke down at the last minute.

Since then, first-team opportunities for the 19-year old have largely been restricted to occasional starts brought about by injuries or suspensions to his fellow defenders and late cameo appearances from the bench. The injury-induced absences of both Alim Ozturk and Igor Rossi allowed him to start the last two games against Dundee and St Johnstone, though with both players set to return for the Celtic game today — and both John Souttar and Liam Smith performing well of late — McGhee seems the most likely candidate to be dropped. A familiar cycle for a player who has been in and out of the team since the age of 16 and one that he has struggled to mask his frustration with in the past couple of seasons.

“A few weeks ago against Ross County, John made his Hearts debut with me and we won 3–0. On Thursday we played against opponents you wouldn’t come up against in Scotland, such as Haller and Dembele, who is apparently going for about £40million. When you play against those two and have a really good game together, there’s no reason you can’t do it in the Scottish Premiership every week. It’s really just being given the chance and having someone who believes in you. Luckily for us, Ricky believes in it. I thought we did well.”

Assuming the quote hasn’t been taken out of context to serve the media narrative, it’s hard to tell how much of this reference to Ricky Sbragia’s “belief” was a dig at Neilson and how much of it was a genuine cry for help. Like Hamilton, McGhee is widely regarded as one of the country’s brighter up-and-coming talents and is certainly reaching an age where regular game time is imperative if he is going to make the most of his potential. With his Hearts and Scotland U21 colleague Souttar having slotted in seamlessly since his move from Dundee United, first-team opportunities McGhee seem even more limited than before and the player himself seems increasingly aware of that.

Although there is an understanding in some quarters that McGhee’s frustration is being fanned by his agent, I would also suggest that he’s a victim of circumstance and that his itchy feet have been caused by an abnormally early introduction to the first team he wouldn’t otherwise have got during more stable times at Hearts. Compare McGhee to the likes of Craig Gordon and Christophe Berra (current internationals and arguably the most recent examples of Hearts youth products to reach a higher level) and their first team initiations couldn’t be more different.

While Gordon and Berra were gradually brought through when the time was right — surrounded by more senior team-mates and only made regulars once they had proved themselves on a sustained basis — McGhee’s first season was essentially thrust upon him out of sheer necessity after administration had ravaged the club of its experienced professionals.

It’s understandable, therefore, that having been involved in the first team from such a young age, McGhee is so desperate for regular game time to continue his development. However, if he isn’t part of Neilson’s plans in the short-term, a loan move to another full-time club next season would surely be the most logical route to take, allowing McGhee to return a better player with more first-team experience under his belt and a refreshed outlook on his future at Hearts.

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on April 2, 2016.

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