THERE is something quite revealing, and a little bit depressing, about hearing Danny Wilson talking about Hearts' young players as if he were a gnarled veteran himself.
Wilson turned 22 only last month but having come to prominence at such a young age - playing in the Champions League at 17 - the defender has accrued enough experience to be considered a senior figure among an otherwise callow group. It was enough to earn him the captaincy ahead of one of the most difficult seasons in the club's history as Hearts muddle on valiantly through an extended period of administration.
The accompanying transfer embargo has left the manager Gary Locke with little choice but to continue to rely on a squad of players so young that many have yet to begin shaving, the capriciousness of youth delivering performances that have often been high energy but also frustratingly inconsistent. If it has been a difficult campaign for the Hearts supporters to endure with relegation a near certainty, then finally there are a few shafts of light to split the gloom.
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Off the field the club is inching gradually towards the administration exit, while on it Locke's side are enjoying something of a purple patch, having won back-to-back matches for the first time this season including a rare victory at home. That upturn has put a spring in the step of management, players and supporters alike and couldn't have come at a better time. For all Hearts' troubles they have still managed to reach the semi-final of the League Cup for a second successive season and once again it is Inverness Caledonian Thistle who stand in their way of a final place.
Hearts' run - combined with the recent decline of Inverness - now means Sunday's Easter Road encounter could be much closer than had been expected. Wilson, again displaying maturity beyond his years, warned against getting carried away on the back of just a few positive results.
"We've had two wins, we're not getting ahead of ourselves," he said. "But there is a nice feeling about us now going into an important game on Sunday. We're going into this semi-final with just a bit of form. We're all really striving to get through to the final if only to give the fans something back. They have backed us all season, even though our results have been nothing short of shocking. Maybe things are going our way. It's often said that, if you keep working hard, you get your luck. Well, there have been times during the season when everything seemed to be against us. We didn't get too downbeat about it. Everything is positive now but we know that all it takes is a couple of bad results to put us back to square one. The important thing now is to make sure we give a good account of ourselves on Sunday."
It is instructive to notice Wilson separate himself from the younger members of Locke's squad, talking about them as "they" rather than "we". He would be one of the youngest players in most SPFL Premiership sides but not at Hearts. In the 2-1 win over St Mirren on Wednesday night Locke named seven players younger than his captain, only one of whom, Scott Robinson, started last year's semi-final and another, Kevin McHattie, began the final.
"For a lot of these boys this will be the biggest game of their careers," acknowledged Wilson. "They've all been given an opportunity to play, by default; but they've all embraced it. Now they've got the chance to get themselves to a national final. At that age, at this stage of their careers, that's a great opportunity for any player. There are 18 and 19-year-olds in that dressing room. I played in a final at 18. They've got the opportunity to get there and feel how I felt."
So much has happened in the past 12 months at Hearts it seems hard to believe that last year's semi-final was only a second appearance for Wilson, still at that point on loan from Liverpool. It would prove to be a memorable occasion.
"That was my second game and I got shipped out to left-back. I remember that well enough. It was one of those games, there was the sending off [Robinson] but we weathered the storm. I remember Billy McKay going through and missing a chance and thinking then that it might be turning for us.
"When it goes to a penalty shoot-out, it's a lottery. Thankfully, we got through it. Hopefully on Sunday we can go through in 90 minutes but we need to prepare for every eventuality."