Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson insists international recognition for kids proves future is bright

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If a club’s representation at national level is a measure of its well being, Hearts are in rude health after head coach Robbie Neilson watched six of his youngsters receive Scotland Under-21 recognition.

Neilson is also adamant that their academy conveyor-belt can continue to churn out crops of kids that are capable of following in the footsteps of Sam Nicholson, John Souttar, Liam Smith, Jordan McGhee, Jack Hamilton and Billy King, who is currently on loan at Rangers.

The Gorgie club’s contribution to the Scottish national sides would have been even greater had Callum Paterson not picked up a shoulder injury – the right back having been in contention for Gordon Strachan’s full squad.

There was also joy for winger Dario Zanatta after the teenager was called up by Canada Under-20s.

robbieneilsonNeilson is thrilled the club’s focus on nurturing youngsters is being rewarded after admitting that their academy had been neglected during the peak of their financial troubles

Neilson said: “I’m delighted, the whole ethos of the club is to develop young players, whether it be players from the academy or players coming in from abroad.

“To have so many in the 21s team is great, I’d like to try and get more in the full squad but I think that will take a wee bit of time for them to develop and make the step up.

“From those seven we’ve got, there’s probably three or four that could make the first team step eventually.

“I think there will be more and more to come through as well.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years, since administration, trying to build the academy.

“From the age of eight up to about under-14s there’s a really good batch, then we have a year where we’ve only got three or four that are good.

“After that we go up to 18s and we’re really good again.

“With the period in administration and with the problems, the investment in the academy came away and we lost that group of players.

“Now we’re trying to recruit from outwith so there’s always a continuous group coming through.”

Smith

Right-back Smith, a late addition to the 21s squad for the forthcoming Euro qualifiers against Northern Ireland and France, has impressed in Hearts’ last three matches as he deputises for the injured Paterson.

Neilson added: “It was great to see Liam getting a call up. I am really pleased for him.

“He’s played all the way through and this is the next step, so that’s great.

“He probably would have come in to the team earlier, but for Callum Paterson.

“We are blessed with a very good right back and a very good young right back.

“Callum’s been doing so well in that position so Liam has had to bide his time.

“In the summer and in January, we had a lot of teams from the Championship and League One who were all desperate to take Liam.

“But we kept a hold of him as I felt there would be an opportunity to put him in, and I was proved right.

“Liam is an intelligent boy and understands he has to bide his time and probably become more physical.

“He will need to develop that side of his game but football-wise, in terms of his positioning, he’s got it all.

“It’s just a case of bulking up a little bit to play at the top level.”

Europe

With Hearts on course to qualify for the Europa League, Neilson admits he faces a welcome headache in trying to make sure his side are ready for a potential early start in the first qualifying round at the end of June.

Neilson, whose team are 16 points clear in third ahead of tomorrow’s visit of St Johnstone, added: “It’s great to get Europe but it does have an effect on your pre-season.

“It’s difficult to plan games. We’ll come back around the 14, 15th of June and trying to get a friendly before the game on the 30th will be difficult.

“There’s no clubs in England back, no-one is back in Scotland; we have to plan and try and get a Scandinavian team or an Irish team.

“If you get through, that affects the rest of you pre-season plans – it’s a good problem to have though.”

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