HE insists he will be concentrating on the job in hand at East End Park this afternoon, but it will be very difficult for Sandy Clark, assistant manager at Hamilton, to prevent his thoughts meandering towards Hampden as a clutch of his young Tynecastle prodigies attempt to help Hearts into the final of the Scottish Cup.

The acrimonious parting of Clark from Tynecastle two years ago seems more than ever a pity, as the fulfillment of some of his youth development work is being seen perhaps in quicker time than anyone, bar himself, believed.

It was under Clark's wing that the Hearts youth scheme became so well established that, in his time there, it produced players like Gary Locke, Alan Johnston, Alan McManus, Paul Ritchie, and Kevin Thomas, all of whom are in contention for a place against Aberdeen.

It would be difficult to find a premier division club with a better, or more prolific, record of promoted youngsters in the last couple of seasons. None of them surprised Clark, who reckons there are two or three more from the same batch who will also make their mark in due course.

They were all unearthed by the youth training scheme which Clark introduced, basically screening hopefuls in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and it was the class of '92 which at one point won the BP Youth Cup as well as the Premier Reserve League.

Those are achievements of which Clark, who is also commercial manager with Hamilton, remains proud, but if his precocious young lads, who would have been christened Clark's Kids long before now if he had not left the club, are influential in taking his old team to the cup final he will find it hard to contain his delight.

``They were a great bunch of lads,'' he recalls. ``In fact, I still keep contact with them, helping if they seek advice.''

All of these players turned full-time in Clark's time as reserve and youth coach, and when he took over as manager after the departure of Joe Jordan, he introduced many of them to the first team. ``We tried to give them an education about how a football club is run when they were 14 and 15 years old, and then, when they turned 16 and became full-time, they knew me and were not coming into a strange environment.

``That helped their progress and, in fact, I gave debuts in the first team to Johnston, Thomas, Locke, Ritchie, McManus, and keeper Gary O'Connor, who has gone to Doncaster.''

Clark accepts that his successor as manager, Tommy McLean, had every right to his view that the lads were not quite ready for the first team, but he is thrilled that the man who has succeeded McLean, Jim Jefferies, has decided to take a chance with them, although he does not see it as much of a risk. Clark has every confidence in the new generation of Tynecastle players, mainly because they have learned the art of winning as a team.

``Their biggest hurdle at the time of their youth development was to win a trophy and I remember going to Ibrox for the final of the BP Youth Cup against Rangers thinking there was no way we would lose. We won 3-1, going on 5 or 6.

``As a group they had a magnificent spirit, a dedication to each other, and I knew that team could beat any side of similar age.''

He goes through that winning side with patent relish. ``Miles Hogarth was the keeper and he is still on Hearts books, farmed out to juniors at the moment, David Murie who I believe is on the verge of the first team, McManus and Ritchie, who are in the first team, Grant Murray, who is still with the club, Gary Locke, now club captain, Kevin Thomas, just returning to top team contention after injury, and Stuart Callaghan, who I am sure will be a first-team player soon. Allan Johnston was a year older, but he joined that lot to win the reserve league.''

He can also recall a few others who were coming along the conveyor belt at the time, but he does particularly remember being quite certain that Locke and Ritchie would be major players in the first team. ``Both are leaders and were bound to succeed if they applied themselves. Some of these boys were unhappy last season, but when they spoke to me I told them to hang on in there and their chance would come again.''

Clark's current team has a big enough first division game at Dunfermline to keep his mind on the action in front of him. ``I will give the Hearts lads a thought at five o'clock, but not before it. It is a different priority for me these days.'' Clark, none the less, will follow the career of his youth class with increasing interest, wherever he is himself.

``It is frustrating for me that my time at Tynecastle ended the way it did. The way I was sacked will live with me for the rest of my days, but the one thing I can stand up and be proud about is the legacy I left behind. I don't want to blow my own trumpet, but it is a fact that I did 99% of the work with those players. The great satisfaction for me is that those lads know that.''

He will be a happy man for everybody at the club if they get through to the final, with one exception, chairman Chris Robinson.

``I still have feelings for Hearts, but it is not the fact I was sacked that makes me hurt, but the way he went about it. He showed his inexperience in the way I was treated. For that reason I can't go back to Tynecastle, and won't unless we are playing a game there. That makes me very sad.

``He still hasn't had the character to admit that he might have made a mistake. If he looks at the first team, he surely must have a wee doubt about it.''

Clark was a member of the last Hearts team to reach the cup final, against Aberdeen 10 years ago, the climax of a fateful week, when they lost the league title at Dens Park as well.

``I think we were a shattered team by the time we went on to Hampden. If we had won the title I believe we would have put up a far better performance, but that is not to say we would have won.''

Can the new generation succeed where his lot failed? ``I have no doubt they can do it. Jim Jefferies has bought very wisely, especially the goalkeeper, and has brought a freshness to the place, and as I have said, the young lads will not fail for lack of strength of character.

``The team has very few of the players who suffered the bad disappointments of the past, like Gary Mackay, John Robertson and John Colquhoun. I think they are favourites to beat Aberdeen.''

Clark still hankers after another shot at management, if only to show that what he did at Tynecastle can be done again.