T HOSE Hearts youth players who thought they were being readied at the turn of the year to be thrust into the first-team fray may finally get their chance after all.
It is something of a miracle that the Tynecastle club continues to enjoy days like Saturday's Scottish Cup final triumph given the backdrop of constant unrest behind the scenes. Last year Paulo Sergio and his players had to deal with the late payment of wages, as well as constant speculation that the squad would be broken up and sold off to every corner of the globe.
A number of the club's successful under-19 team were sent out on loan to give them match experience with a view to returning for the second half of the season, while John Murray, Hearts' academy director, was promoted to the role of director of football with the expectation that the players he had helped discover and develop would soon be filling the first team jerseys. It never turned out that way.
Loading article content
Eggert Jonsson moved to Wolverhampton Wanderers at the start of the year but precious few others followed him out the door. Ryan Stevenson, who had been on strike at the time, left for Ipswich Town, John Sutton went on loan to Central Coast Mariners, Marian Kello was released after the window had closed, while a number of fringe players were also moved on. The departures barely impacted on Sergio's plans, and the team were able to finish the season in fifth place in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League and with the Scottish Cup back in the Tynecastle trophy room.
Hearts' money problems haven't gone away, however. The club is still in debt to the tune of around £24m and owner Vladimir Romanov is still intent on slashing costs to streamline the operation. The Russian-born Lithuanian still insists he wants to sell the club – despite potential buyers finding his intransigence impossible to deal with – and only by making it a more attractive financial proposition can he expect to attract any buyers. With Hearts effectively living hand to mouth, and Romanov no longer willing to provide the cashflow needed to keep things ticking over, it seems only through a vast reduction in the size of the squad can Hearts continue to keep their heads above water.
Several of the cup-winning team have already departed. Ian Black was told several weeks ago that his contract would not be renewed, while Stephen Elliott, Gary Glen and youngster Jordan Morton were all given similar news yesterday. Rudi Skacel and Suso Santana will also likely be allowed to leave, while Craig Beattie has yet to receive an offer to stay following the expiration of his short-term contract.
Even manager Sergio might not be around come the start of the new season after expressing frustration that there had been no discussions about his future during Romanov's fleeting trip back to Scotland. David Southern, the Tynecastle chief executive, last night insisted the club do want to retain the Portuguese but whoever the manager is on August 4 will likely have a depleted pool from which to select. It remains to be seen whether attempts will be made to also sell those still under contract to raise further funds but, regardless, it seems likely that Sergio, or his successor, will need to turn to the youth ranks for reinforcements. That might not be the end of the world.
Hearts' record of producing young players good enough for the first team is impressive; Craig Gordon, Christophe Berra, Gary Naysmith, Robbie Neilson, Lee Wallace, Andy Driver, Jamie MacDonald and Ryan McGowan all came through the ranks. The under-19s finished last season as runners-up in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, winning 16 of their 22 matches, something that may offer a crumb of comfort to those fans wondering just who will be playing for the cup holders next season.
Denis Prychynenko, a German of Ukrainian descent, was one of those sent out to Raith Rovers for experience towards the end of last year and returned to form part of Sergio's first-team squad, making the bench for the cup final. Jason Holt, a 19-year-old midfielder, David Smith, a 19-year-old striker/winger, and Jamie Walker, an 18-year-old striker, all also spent some time out on loan at Stark's Park and all will likely find themselves featuring more often for Hearts in the season ahead.
Fraser Mullen, the 18 year-old full-back who made his first team debut in the Scottish Cup tie against Auchinleck Talbot, missing a penalty, is another likely to be fast-tracked into the first team should Hearts' numbers be reduced as seems likely, while there is also a lot expected of Sam Nicholson, an under-17 midfielder who made the step up to the under-19 group with comparative ease.
They represent the future. Of those departing, there was the inevitable sadness leavened by the knowledge they were going out on a high. "I have had a great couple of years here and to go out in that manner was just amazing," said Elliott. "I'm leaving with a Scottish Cup winner's medal so I would have to say my time here has been a success."
Glen had become a peripheral figure in recent seasons after coming through the youth system but eagerly anticipated his next challenge. "I'd like to wish the lads the best of luck for next season," said the 22 year-old. "I'd like to thank the fans for their support during my time at the club and I'm now looking forward to taking the next step in my career."