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The Lost Boys of 2017/18

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One topic that has been particularly contentious amongst Hearts fans in recent years has been that of recruitment.

The under-performance of the first team, culminating in being bottom of the league in the 2019/20 season and, therefore, in scope for demotion when the season was curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, was for multi-factorial reasons, but recruitment was certainly one of those factors that has been perceived to be poor for some considerable time.

During Craig Levein’s second tenure at the club, from summer 2014 onwards, the club was a prolific recruiter of players, with substantial surgery performed on the squad in numerous windows, perhaps most notably in summer 2018, when the club recruited some 14 players (if Clevid Dikamona is included following the completion of his signing after the window had, a la Jim White, “SLAMMED SHUT”).

Arguably the main losers from this recruitment splurge were the club’s young players, who had, to varying degrees, made contributions to the first team in 2017/18. The club’s social media at the time often made a point of how many Academy players were in the starting line up when posting the team lines, seeing it, perhaps, as something of a badge of honour.

As per London Hearts, Alex Petkov, Harry Cochrane, Anthony McDonald, Andy Irving, Euan Henderson, Daniel Baur, Aidan Keena and Marcus Godinho all made their first team debuts. Lewis Moore, who had made his debut at the end of 2015/16 season, made 15 appearances, including 10 starts, having been out on loan at Cowdenbeath for 2016/17. Jamie Brandon also appeared in 12 games.

If you include the under-20 team fielded in the first team fixture away to Kilmarnock on the last day of the season in 2017/18, Chris Hamilton, Leeroy Makovora, Connor Smith and Cammy Logan also appeared in the first team. Of these players, only Henderson and Irving remain in the first team pool this season: Henderson sometimes used as an impact sub, Irving the only regular starter.

2017/18 had been yet another season of transition for the club: a dismal start in the League Cup, leading to the sacking of Ian Cathro after nine months in charge; the optimism around the ongoing construction of the new main stand, diminished somewhat by delays in the construction process, and a perceived safe pair of hands appointed in Craig Levein to oversee what many perceived to be a tricky circumstance of having to play first team games either away from home or at Murrayfield for the first quarter of the season.

Results were inconsistent, the team often a mix of the very inexperienced academy players and experienced pros like Berra, Cowie, Lafferty and, for the second half of the season, Naismith; the crowning glory of this period being the totally unexpected 4-0 annihilation of Celtic, decloaking the invincibility shield of Brendan Rogers’ Celtic. It was in this game that Cochrane in particular shone very brightly indeed and Anthony McDonald also featured from the bench. Ultimately the team finished the league season in sixth.

For full disclosure, I have a preference for the club to make more use of its Academy players. It would seem to make logical sense, given both the investment made by the club (to the tune of seven figures by some estimates) and also in the context of it being more likely that the club will produce a valuable player than sign one.

This is perhaps evidenced in some of the highest transfer fees that have been received by the club being for players who spent their formative years at Tynecastle. This includes the speculated £2 million for Alan McLaren in 1994, the £1.75 million for Gary Naysmith in 2000, the £9 million for Craig Gordon in 2007, the £2.5 million for Christophe Berra in 2009 and lastly, an undisclosed but widely-speculated seven-figure fee for Aaron Hickey in summer 2020.

The mass recruitment of summer 2018 served to consign almost all of the young players who had first team game time in the previous season to the background once more. Cochrane, perhaps the brightest of the 17/18 debutants, found his path to the first team was now blocked by Bozanic, Haring, Lee and the lesser-spotted Ryan Edwards. The squad was bloated to the extent that it was difficult for any of the Academy players to even get on the bench. Moore and Henderson were loaned out; so too, ultimately, were Cochrane and McDonald.

Fickle footballs fans that many of us are though, the fate of these young players could not have been further from our minds as the team made a barnstorming start to the 2018/19 season, staying top of the league until November, beating Celtic at home again: Naismith was inspired, Levein was a genius.

But it was all to come crashing down following a horrendous run of injuries, and with several key men succumbing to long-term ailments, the squad limped on and ultimately finished sixth again. There was, of course, a spirited performance in the Scottish Cup final, which ended in a 2-1 loss to Celtic, though the team had a rather fortuitous run of cup draws to get there, facing only one Premiership opponent in Livingston, in the fourth round, prior to the final. But the net outcome of recruiting 14 players in the 2018 summer transfer window was that there was no improvement in the club’s league position.

The impact on the young players’ first team prospects in terms of appearances is glaring. Cochrane, who appeared in 24 first team games in 17/18, appeared in just eight in 2018/19; Anthony McDonald played in 14 games in 17/18, but made just six substitute appearances the following season; Euan Henderson, having played 13 games in 17/18, did not appear in the first team squad in the 18/19 season. Injuries and loss of form will have played their part, but arguably getting first team game time is key to a player’s development and, for whatever reason, they didn’t get that in the Hearts first team at that time.

It could be argued that, if the talent is there, it will ultimately surface in the right circumstances. Cochrane and Henderson are still at Hearts and may yet realise their potential, but Cochrane is yet again out on loan (at Montrose) and, because of the cessation of the lower leagues, presumably isn’t playing at all at the moment. McDonald has since left the club and, after a spell with Granada in Spain, is now back in Scotland with Inverness CT, and Henderson continues to be a peripheral player in the current first team squad.

Of the others, Lewis Moore looked to have resurrected his Hearts career with a fine spell of form under Daniel Stendel, including assists against Hibs and Rangers in notable wins, but was then pretty swiftly dumped from the first team squad following the appointment of Robbie Neilson, in favour of journeyman signings Elliot Frear and Jordan Roberts. One of the few young players who did get significant game time in the 2018/19 season, Callumn Morrison, was also released before the 2020/21 season.

The club’s recruitment of senior players was, of course, to get even worse in the 2019 summer window, with the team’s demotion largely due to the teflon-coated gloves of goalkeeper Joel Pereira. The extraordinary four-year deal given to Frenchman Loic Damour, yielding similar output to the lengthy contract given to compatriot Malaury Martin during the Cathro period in 2017, continues to burden the club financially at time of writing.

During the brief reign of Daniel Stendel, Moore, Henderson and Irving were all given regular starts and were brighter spots in an otherwise bleak season, as was Aaron Hickey, who was a regular starter throughout the season and has gone on to bigger things already.

The club have now appointed a Sporting Director in Joe Savage, who is effectively in charge of recruitment, and the early signs are that he’s taking a more structured approach – albeit in Gary Mackay-Steven (aged 30) and Armand Gnanduillet (29) there continues to be a somewhat short-term approach, which is arguably ‘needs must’, as the priority is to get out of the Championship at the first time of asking. It will be interesting to see how the recruitment strategy evolves under Savage’s stewardship.

I’m curious to see how the club will make use of the Academy going forward. Were the generation who were given their chance in 2017/18 ultimately just not good enough? Or was it the circumstances – be it their own personal form and fitness or routes to the first team being blocked – that contributed to them not realising their potential in a Hearts jersey?

The club has, and continues to make, a significant investment in its youth setup but, of the young players given their debut since Ann Budge took over the club in 2014, only Irving is currently a regular first team starter, while Aaron Hickey was a notable success, both in terms of being a good first team performer and also yielding a significant transfer fee. There is, of course, the added complication of COVID-19 and the impact that it must be having for age-group football.

My hope is that we see improvement in both recruitment and the development of young players into the first team, because it is mistakes and bad luck in these areas that have largely led to the circumstances we now find ourselves in.

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