DALE CARRICK is relishing the challenge of developing the next generation of Hearts stars.
However, the Airdrie hitman will have no qualms about heaping more misery on the current crop of toiling Jambos this weekend.
Carrick, 26, is combining his playing duties at the Diamonds with coaching the capital club’s under-14s side at Riccarton as he tentatively considers the next step after hanging up his boots.
It adds just another layer of intrigue ahead of Carrick’s Scottish Cup showdown with the club he represented for 10 years as a fresh-faced youngster.
However, aside from light-hearted suspicions that he may be a spy, he is adamant his dual role has only served to make the build-up more enjoyable.
Carrick explained: “My main feeling is excitement about playing Hearts, because I work for them on a day-to-day basis at the academy. It will be good to see those familiar faces that I see during the week at Riccarton on a game-day.
“It hasn’t been a strange one. It’s been funny more than anything. The other coaches just keep going ‘shhhh, here he comes, don’t mention the game . . .’
“It’s just been a bit of banter but not a serious dilemma.
“I’m working with Hearts’ under-14 side. Most of the kids that I coach have season tickets, so I’ll get the chance to see them at the game too – hopefully, I’m not getting too much abuse from them!
“I thought beginning coaching so early in my career would be a bonus, especially since I’m not sure what I’d like to do when I stop playing.
“I knew this would be beneficial to my development and I owe a lot to Hearts for giving me this opportunity and helping me go through my [coaching] badges.”
While Carrick may sport Hearts colours on the training pitch, he has not stepped onto the Tynecastle turf as a player since leaving the club to join ex-boss Gary Locke at Kilmarnock in the summer of 2015.
He had notched five goals in nine Premiership fixtures under Locke towards the tail-end of the 2013/14 campaign but made the decision to pursue first-team football after falling out of favour under Robbie Neilson the following season.
Injuries hampered his time at Rugby Park and a subsequent stint with Livingston, during which he was farmed out on loan to Cowdenbeath. However, Carrick does not look back in anger.
He continued: “I don’t have any regrets about the way things ended at Hearts. I wanted to play regularly and, at that age, you need to take the plunge and chase first-team football. I still believe that was the right decision for me at the time.
“There’s no bitterness, only appreciation that I can come back to Tynecastle – because I haven’t had that opportunity since leaving Hearts.
“My mum, Michaela, has asked for 10 tickets as well so it’ll be a special occasion.”
On current form, you wouldn’t bet against Carrick coming back to haunt his former employers.
Carrick has been reborn since joining Airdrie and, now fully fit and firing, is displaying the form which made him so highly-rated as a kid in the capital.
He has bagged 10 goals in his last 12 outings and reckons his foray into coaching has benefitted his all-round game.
He added: “Doing that job has given me a lot more understanding of the game. I have more of an awareness of the positional and tactical aspects of the match – whereas you sometimes don’t give that a lot of thought when you are just focusing on your own play.
“Airdrie have given me a platform to hit my personal goals of getting a lot of game-time and, recently, I’ve been hitting the net regularly, which was my next aim. I’ve hit a rich vein of form and I’m grateful for them giving me that chance to excel.”