BY DARREN JOHNSTONE
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson admits Jordan McGhee’s dream of playing in the English top-flight will be determined by whether the defender grows an extra inch.
The Tynecastle outfit have high hopes for the Scotland Under-21 internationalist but Neilson admits the chances of McGhee plying his trade as a centre-half south of the border depends on his height.
McGhee, who is just over 6ft tall, impressed at both right and left back in Sunday’s hard-fought 1-0 victory at Dundee United on his return to the first team but plans to become a recognised central defender in future.
Neilson knows from his own experience that players in England are vastly superior physical athletes after moving to Leicester City from Hearts in 2009.
And even though the Gorgie side regard McGhee, who was the subject of a failed bid from Ipswich during the summer, as a player with great potential, Neilson concedes that the 19-year-old still needs to grow.
Neilson, who looks set to deploy McGhee at left-back against Ross County today after Juwon Oshaniwa picked up a hamstring injury at Tannadice, said: “You can play in Scotland as a centre half at six foot.
“If you want to go and play as a centre-half in England, you need to be six-three, six four. That’s it. That’s the nature of the game.
“He could play centre-half at six-one. But he’s not going to get a move down to a big team in England and play in that position. And that’s what he wants to do.
“We have big hopes for Jordan and I believe he can go and play down in England. It’s just a question of what position he plays when he goes there.
“If he is going to be a centre-half in England, he will need to grow an inch or two.
“He’s good enough to be a top-class right back, he’s very good defensively, he’s good on the ball.
“But I think he’s a better centre-half at the moment. It all depends on how he develops over the next year or two.
“He’s still growing, you can see already that he’s filling out. So he’s got a chance.
“You saw him last week, he came in at right back then switched over to left back.
“He’s comfortable on the ball.”
Neilson was taken aback by the physical difference when he moved south of the border as a player six years ago.
He added: “Just look at every centre-half in England. I remember standing next to guys in the tunnel that were huge.
“I played up here predominately as a right back but I played centre half a few times.
“I went down to England and I couldn’t play centre half down there.
“If they put a 6 foot 3 inch or 6 foot 4 inch striker up against you, you had no chance. The aerial ball comes in and you can’t compete against it. No matter how good a player you are, you can’t do it.
“That’s just the nature of football now. You talk about technical players but you need them to have physicality as well.
“You look at all the top teams in the world, yes, they’ve got guys who are five-eight. But they’re built like tanks.
“So we’re obviously trying to produce technically good players, that comes first. But they need to be physically strong, as well.
“You have (Scotland cap) Christophe Berra and he’ll be six-three, that’s why Christophe has got a career down there.
“Jordan McGhee is a better footballer than Christophe Berra but Berra has the physicality at the moment.
“He had that at a young age, he had pace and power. That’s the reason he is playing down in England.”
Today’s opponents County are only two points behind Hearts in fourth place in the Premiership butNeilson does not regard Jim McIntyre’s side as the surprise package in the top-flight.
Neilson added: “I don’t think County have been a shock. Not to me, anyway.
“They’ve got good players. They had a really poor start last season but, when Jim took over, he steadied the ship.
“He managed to clear out maybe 15 or 20 players in the summer and build a really good squad.
“They’re financially secure, the club is really well run and the chairman (Roy MacGregor) does a great job, not just with the football club but with the community as well.
“They are a strong club and I expect them to be around the top six this year.”