Yesterday morning, the club tweeted the news that Harry Cochrane’s time as a Hearts player will come to an end this summer, after he rejected the club’s offer of a new deal.
With the 19-year old seeing out the current season on loan at Montrose, it means the Betfred Cup win over Raith Rovers back in October was his final appearance for the first team, rounding off his career in maroon at 33 appearances and one goal.
That solitary goal, the opener in a 4-0 demolition of Celtic’s Invincibles, will be Hearts’ fans enduring memory of Cochrane, but the fact that a moment from 2017 remained arguably the only noteworthy highlight of his time at the club leaves a nagging sense of unfulfilled potential.
The reality of that will not have been lost on the player himself and is likely to have been a source of frustration that ultimately led to his decision to move on. That in turn is likely to leave a bad taste in the mouths of Hearts supporters, many of whom are growing increasingly disillusioned with the club’s youth policy and will view Cochrane as another example of a once-promising academy graduate who has amounted to nothing.
It is easy to see where fans’ concerns come from. While nobody is suggesting that every young player released would have made it, there are legitimate questions to be asked when they are often replaced, at significant expense, by more senior players from elsewhere who, despite being presented as upgrades, rarely perform as such.
There are countless examples this season alone, the most pertinent being the handful of failed wide men we brought in at the expense of Lewis Moore, Anthony McDonald and Callumn Morrison. Similarly, while Cochrane was spending time on loan with Dunfermline and Montrose, we’ve had the likes of Glenn Whelan and Loic Damour collecting sizeable wage packets but ultimately offering no greater return.
Often, the argument put forward in defence of these decisions is that the youngsters in question have done little in their careers since leaving Hearts. While that is true of most, it doesn’t necessarily mean none of them would have been capable of fulfilling the roles the club have instead sought to fill through external means and at great cost. As Martin Taylor pointed out in his piece yesterday, it’s not as if every academy player is expected to move to a higher level for a substantial transfer fee: there is also value in retaining home-grown players as steady squad members in the Scottish Premiership, as plenty teams in the league can demonstrate.
Whether you think these young guys would have made it or not, there is no way it can be argued that playing them would have been any riskier than wasting the kind of money we have on the stream of supposedly experienced upgrades that have come and gone over the last five or six years.
If we continue that trend of releasing academy players and replacing them with overpaid dross, what message does that send to other aspiring youngsters looking to break through? Where is the motivation to improve if their route to the first team is continually blocked by mercenaries earning far more than them but producing just as little? Why shouldn’t they look elsewhere for first team football? And what does all that tell parents about their child’s prospects at Hearts when deciding which club they should join in the first place?
Of course, it’s pretty easy to take aim at the club for every event that disappoints us these days, but some of the responsibility lies with the player himself. Since making his first team debut, Cochrane has worked under three separate (permanent) managers and was overlooked by all of them to some extent. While many will argue that two of those managers are cut from the same cloth, Daniel Stendel made it abundantly clear he wanted younger players involved when he took over and yet, despite recalling Cochrane from his loan spell with Dunfermline, was not as keen to throw him into the mix as he was with Moore, Euan Henderson and Andy Irving. Granted, it sounds as if he might have got more of a chance if the season had not been cut short by Covid and Stendel had stayed on, but there were still two months in which he hadn’t done enough to force his way into the German’s plans.
Nevertheless, the club had still demonstrated some interest in continuing his development when it offered him a new deal. Whether that’s been a case of too little too late for Cochrane or he simply had other reasons for wanting a fresh challenge, it was his decision, not the club’s.
All in all, it’s regrettable for all involved that this hasn’t worked out. Cochrane’s initial appearances as a fresh-faced 16-year old offered an enticing glimpse into what many hoped would be a promising first post-administration generation to emerge from the academy.
Supporter expectations had therefore been building since Cochrane and company broke onto the scene, with everyone willing them to become the kind of home-grown first-team success stories Hearts fans love to see. Two of the most recent examples in that regard are currently the elder statesmen in our squad and in the twilight of their careers. Perhaps it’s that ongoing wait for the next Christophe Berra or Craig Gordon – or perhaps it’s the tendency to over-romanticise the “one of our own” label that causes even greater disappointment when it fails to materialise. That’s certainly how I feel, having talked up Harry Cochrane to any friend or relative who was willing (or pretending) to listen.
Is it possible that this is where we have been going wrong over the past few years? In the digital age, when these boys are fully adept with social media and aware of everything being said about them, was the decision to expose them to the rigours of first team football at such a young age – 16, 17 years old in some cases – actually counterproductive? In doing so, did the club create a level of hype and expectation that was simply too much for these boys to process so early in their careers and their lives more generally?
How does that impact those players if they later find themselves on the fringes or out on loan having been given the briefest taste of top-team action? Naturally, some might use it as motivation to get back there as soon as possible, but not all young, developing minds are going to be wired that way.
Maybe that necessitates a rethink of how we bring young players through and perhaps this is what we’re seeing now, with the likes of Harry Stone, Connor Smith and Chris Hamilton having spent the majority of their formative professional years on loan. In taking a more gradual approach to their development and not throwing too much at them too quickly, the club can better manage expectations of, not just the player, but the fans as well.