In the opening game of the 2022/23 Lowland League season, Heart of Midlothian B delivered a comprehensive thumping of Berwick Rangers, winning 6-0. It was the side's first fixture as part of the Lowland League. 

Any expectation that it would be a breeze for the club's young players was quickly eradicated as the team went on to win just once in their next 14 matches. From November onwards, however, the results and performances were far more positive. It has since carried into this campaign.

Only three weeks ago Hearts defeated Berwick 6-0 once more.This time it was followed up with a win over Celtic B. Last Friday's 1-0 defeat to University of Stirling was just the second for Liam Fox's side who sit third in the Lowland League, albeit having played more games than the teams below them. 

The club's sporting director Joe Savage, who oversees the academy as part of a wide remit, played a key role in the involvement of Hearts B in Scotland's fifth tier. A decision he called "huge" and "a brilliant investment".

"We pushed for it because we knew we needed it to bridge that gap between the 18s and first-team," he told Hearts Standard. "The Lowland League has been great for us, really competitive games, really difficult games. You are playing against guys who have been full-time and now have jobs. Their physical, their rough, we need the boys to understand that that’s the career, that’s what you’re coming into in Scotland, there are a lot of direct styles in Scotland. A lot of the time the ball is in the air, a lot of battles. From that side of things, brilliant, absolutely brilliant."

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Friday's defeat at home to University of Stirling was frustrating. The students played with controlled aggression, were incredibly fit and attacked directly. Hearts found it hard to get into their own flow and tempo. At that level and age it can be viewed as a learning curve. But just as important is everything around games, the preparation, the build-up, the recovery, whether it is a Friday night or Saturday afternoon.

"I think there have been loads and loads of positives for me," Fox, who returned to the club in the summer to take over the team from Steven Naismith, told Hearts Standard on a wet Friday night at Ainslie Park. "Consistent games, different types of games, different opposition, different types of challenges and also having games regularly for the boys. That’s probably the biggest thing for me. Competitive games, games that matter.

"Because we play almost every week, your periodisation, how we train, when we train, how you plan, video meetings, video reviews, it’s as close as it’s going to be to an actual first-team environment. They get used to that and in the routine of that.

"Previously when I worked in the reserve team you could have sporadic games. You could have a game one week then miss three weeks. Having consistent games has been, I feel, hugely beneficial for this group of players."

Hearts Standard:

Hearts B have been one of the most improved sides in a division where the majority of the 18 teams can beat one another on any given day. A large contingent of Fox's side experienced the league under current first-team head coach Steven Naismith last season. Those experiences have set them up positively for this campaign.

"They played a lot of these teams last year so they know what to expect," Fox, who admitted to having a spring back in his step working with the team, said. "They had a year of playing regular matches which has helped them. Physically they have improved. We’ve worked them extremely hard in the gym. Sometimes they are playing games and they are a bit fatigued because of how hard we’ve worked them because we know how important that is for them to develop to the first-team.

"They worked extremely hard over the summer, we had them in a lot during the summer break so they could do extra work on or off the pitch. All these things are geared towards giving them the best opportunity to break into the first team."

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But what about next season? Proposals for a Conference League to sit between the Highland and Lowland League and the SPFL which would have given B teams a permanent home were rejected. Hearts are eager, one way or another, for their B team to continue next campaign wherever that may be.

"Going forward we are in discussion with the Lowland League because we need to make sure we maintain a B team, whether it is in the Lowland League next year or wherever else but we will be campaigning to keep that," Savage explained.

"It’s been a brilliant, brilliant thing for us. I know Rangers pulled out of the Lowland League and are doing that B team programme. I’m not sure I agree with it because I don’t think they are playing competitive games. They are going down to England which is good, there is a bit of an edge there but it is not about three points at the end of the day. You get beat, you get beat.

"Whereas the boys in the Lowland League are competing for points. It has been great for our boys to see that, whether it is against Dalbeattie or Berwick. These guys are plumbers, electricians and they might be on a win bonus and it might help towards a holiday or a mortgage. These boys dig in and work so hard to make sure they beat a Hearts B team. That’s been great for us when we’re watching that and seeing that.

"Speaking to Liam Fox or Naisy last year and they are saying how difficult the boys are finding it, how rough it is, brilliant. We are making sure they are ready for first-team football.

"The players understand we are paying attention to the B team, we are watching all the games, we are getting information from Foxy constantly. When the boys come up to the first-team they have to earn the right but they are doing it in a good way because the B team is helping them. I wasn’t convinced when 18s were in the first-team because it was too big a jump whereas the B team now, the Lowland League is a competitive league, there are some good teams in it, some teams who have fallen down from League Two and struggled to get back up because it is a competitive league and there is a bit of money behind it as well."

Hearts fans have witnessed the eventual transition of Aidan Denholm into a first-team squad member, while a number of the B team stars have been in and around the squad this campaign, whether it is in training, travelling to European matches or taking a spot on the bench, including the likes of Macaulay Tait and, at the weekend, Adam Forrester. That is the end game for the B team, to act as the final station before making the jump.

"From our point of view this is the best way to get them as ready as we possibly can for the first-team environment," Fox noted.