Scour through the names of players set to appear in this weekend’s Star Sixes tournament at Glasgow’s Hydro and it’s packed with household names from Ronald De Boer to Ryan Giggs to Robert Pires.
For Andy Kirk, the former Heart of Midlothian and Northern Ireland striker, the chance to do battle with such illustrious opponents, some of which he had the pleasure of facing during his time in Scotland, is one aspect of the event that appealed to him the most.
“When you look through the list of players that are going to be on show, it’s exciting. As a player, when you were playing week in, week out, you always wanted to test yourself against the best and when I came up to Hearts, Rangers at that stage had Ronald de Boer, Numan…top class international players. Celtic were the same…Henrik Larsson and boys like that. I know the players are older and they’re all finished playing, but the experience that they have and the quality that they have will still be with them. As a footballer, as a sports person, you always have that competitive edge and you always want to test yourself against the best and that’s another part that’s exciting about it.”
Another aspect of the tournament Kirk is looking forward to is the opportunity to reunite with a number of former international team-mates (the likes of Keith Gillespire, Maik Taylor, Stephen Craigan and Colin Murdock) having been involved in Northern Ireland squads with all of them at one stage or another.
“It’s going to be good to catch up with them again and see what they’re up to in their day-to-day lives, how things have progressed and moved on for them. You get talking about old times so I’m really looking forward to that aspect of it.”
Old times, as far as Kirk’s international career is concerned, started back in April 2000, when his form at club level with Hearts was rewarded with a maiden cap for Northern Ireland in a friendly against Hungary at Windsor Park.
That game would prove to be Kirk’s only start for the national team, with his remaining 10 caps (the last of which he earned as recently as 2010 against the Czech Republic) all coming as a substitute. It’s an element of his career that he reflects on with a degree of frustration.
“I was in and around a lot of squads but a lot of [my caps] were from the bench apart from the first one. That’s probably a disappointing aspect of my career in terms of not getting that run in the national squad that I thought, at one particular time, I probably deserved. But the times I went, I was young, there were a lot of experienced players and they were going through a bit of a transition at that stage as well. It was still a good learning experience for me.”
Despite the disappointment of having not played as regularly for his country, Kirk still enjoyed a fruitful club career. Having moved to Hearts as a teenager from Glentoran, Kirk quickly went on to become a popular player in maroon, regularly reaching double figure goal tallies and racking up 35 goals in 134 appearances across five and a half successful seasons.
“It was probably the best time of my career at Hearts when I look back. I had wee spells in England and a good spell at Dunfermline before I finished up, but the time at Hearts…we had a really good squad of players…the club was great with me, the fans were great with me, so I’ve got nothing but great memories of playing there. It’s hard to pick one [highlight] over another.”
“The 5–1 derby win at Tynecastle is always one that sticks in my head and one of the first real memories I have was when I’d just broken into the team and we played Stuttgart in a European game at Tynecastle. We won the game 3–2 but went out on away goals. The atmosphere that night was unbelievable. It’s always one that sticks in my head because of the fans. Winning the game and coming so close to going through to the next round — for a young player at that stage, it was great for me.”
Having left Hearts in 2004, Kirk went on to enjoy prolific spells at Boston United, Northampton Town, Yeovil Town, Dunfermline Athletic and Alloa Athletic, before hanging up his boots at the age of 35 and taking the immediate step into coaching.
After a stint working in the Rangers youth academy setup, Kirk was brought back to Hearts by Craig Levein in 2016 to coach within Roger Arnott’s revamped academy setup at Riccarton, where the life lessons and experiences he absorbed as a youngster moving to Edinburgh from Belfast serve him well in his current role as Reserve Team coach.
“It took me a wee bit of time at the start when I came across from part-time football as a young player… but once I got in the team, had a couple of good performances, scored my first goal, it makes you feel like you belong, that you’re capable of doing it and the confidence you gain from that helps you to kick on. That Stuttgart game was a midweek, and then we played Motherwell on the Saturday and I scored my first goal, so I got a wee run and that was the start of me being a sort of regular in the first team.
Those sort of things that give you self-belief and confidence were a major thing at the start, when you first come across and you’re trying to get settled. I was only young at the time. I was 18, never been away from home, coming across to a new city, buying a house — no idea what I’m doing. All these things that you’re trying to battle through all while training and trying to impress to get in the team…it’s a lot to deal with. But it’s an experience that I dealt well with.”
During our chat, one of the subjects Kirk revisits on a few occasions and clearly places a great deal of importance on is the ability to learn from past experiences. It’s a quality with which he armed himself throughout a playing career that saw him score over 160 competitive goals and one that he has carried into his coaching.
Although Kirk was originally brought over to Edinburgh by Jim Jefferies, it was under Levein that he truly flourished in a maroon jersey. Kirk credits the current Hearts boss with having a key influence on his playing career and undoubtedly enjoyed some of his best football under him.
Now, as he embarks on a career in coaching, Kirk is once again learning from his former manager. When Levein returned to the club as Director of Football in 2014, one aspect of his blueprint for the academy restructure at Riccarton, in addition to nurturing young playing talent, was the emphasis on developing coaches, an ethos Kirk hopes to benefit from.
“The environment I’m in at the minute is fantastic for any coach to learn. If you make a mistake, why did you? You picked the wrong team, you made the wrong sub…why did you do it? What can you do next time to make it better? Identifying and reflecting on your own decisions. But being in that position to make the decisions is key as well. For a young coach trying to develop and learn, having a manager ahead of you who’s pushing you all the time and letting you get to that stage is great.”
While there are certainly lessons Kirk will have learned from Levein and other managers he played under during his career, it is almost 20 years since he was in the position his academy graduates find themselves in today. In that time, football has undergone considerable change, with the rise of sports science, an increasing reliance on data analytics and new coaching philosophies shaping players’ development at an earlier stage.
Society has changed rapidly in that time too. Whereas Kirk broke through as a fresh-faced youngster in the age of dial-up internet, where the smartest phone was one that could play Snake and social networking involved leaving the house, the challenges today’s young footballers face are rather different.
The meteoric rise of social media has increased the immediacy of everything and football is no different: players are now more accessible to fans and, as a result, they’re constantly in the spotlight. Adapting to such change is therefore crucial to any coach looking to manage a player’s personality and tap into his potential.
“To start with, the facilities we have, the opportunities we have, the structure of the whole game now compared to when I came through. I mean, we went straight to 11-a-side when we were kids, now the structure goes from fours, to fives to sevens, to nines to elevens. Players are coached a lot more than we would’ve been as young players, so the skills and the tools they’re developing through younger ages…by the time they get close to reserve and first team football, they’re equipped with all the attributes they need apart from maybe the physicality side of it…some of them take a wee bit longer…but in terms of the level they’re training at, how much they’re being pushed…that’s a major difference to what I had coming through as a kid.
The generation now…kids are brought up differently, their views on life are different to what we had and it’s wrong to compare what we were to what they should be. You’ve just got to embrace the way life is at the minute and try to get the most out of the young players you’re working with. They’re all different. As coaches it’s up to us to find out the best way of developing each player individually.”
With the majority of his days now taken up by coaching commitments, Kirk admits he has found it a challenge to keep on top of his own fitness. For that reason, the Star Sixes, and the preparation it entails, is viewed as somewhat of a blessing in disguise.
“I finished playing at 35, about four years ago, and you sort of lose touch with doing too much physical activity, especially when you’re coaching. You’re on the pitch every day for most of the day coaching and organising, and the last thing you get time to do is your own fitness work, so it’s made me actually get off my backside and do a wee bit more. I try and join in with the boys in training as much as I can. If there’s wee games at the end and there’s an odd number I’ll throw myself in and try and get involved.”
And is he able to keep up with his young charges?
“I sometimes feel worse about myself after I’ve joined in,” he laughs. “Nah, I’m just trying to get myself into a condition where I can get about the pitch a wee bit. It’s been good.”
Thank you to the people at FansBet for setting up this interview. Star Sixes is taking place this weekend (4th-6th January) at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow. For tickets, click here.