Harry Stone was on a flight back from Thessaloniki when he found out he would be heading out on loan for the sixth time in his career. Heart of Midlothian had been knocked out of Europe in the Conference League play-off against PAOK and the young goalkeeper was told he was joining Marvin Bartley's young Queen of the South side.

The news was delivered by goalkeeping coach Paul Gallacher. He informed the 21-year-old goalkeeper that the Doonhamers were "really interested" in bringing him in. Hibs goalkeeper Murray Johnson had been recalled and Gordon Botterill had been sent off in the previous match, a win over Cove Rangers.

The turnaround was quick.

Stone and the Hearts squad arrived back in Edinburgh at 2am on the Friday morning. That night was a restless one. On Saturday he was pitched into the Queen of the South starting XI for the match with Montrose. He would be on the losing side, going down 3-2 at Palmerston.

READ MORE: Craig Gordon: Hearts legend on his journey to master the art of goalkeeping

"It’s been up and down," Stone told Hearts Standard in an exclusive chat. "It was a frantic start, I got chucked right into it, played five games and then had to sit on the bench for five games but now I’m back playing, things are going really well and I’m really enjoying it."

Our chat took place before the weekend's win over Cove Rangers. A result that had lifted Queens into the play-off spots for a large chunk of Saturday. But Stone wouldn't finish the game, replaced at half-time following a shoulder knock. He received treatment towards the end of the first half but carried on until the break. The hope is it is nothing more than a minor issue.

Last week, Stone extended his future with Hearts, alongside Ethan Drysdale, signing a deal until 2025. It was a key moment for the goalkeeper who, less than a year ago, thought his career may have been heading for a key juncture. The confirmation of a new deal then didn't arrive until towards the end of the season. 

"It’s good to get it done early," he said. "It came about after the Dundee United game [a win on penalties in the Scottish Cup third round]. Naisy phoned me to say well done and that he’d been keeping an eye [on me] and I’m still in the plans so there is no point in keeping me waiting, he was happy to tell me then and I was happy to sign. 

"It’s definitely good to have the plan in my head. I remember last season I wasn’t told until toward the end of the season. I was thinking ‘what’s going on here? Am I going to have to start planning for next year?'. It can maybe take your eye off the football you are playing. It’s good to get it done and I can focus on playing."

The plan in question was formulated with Steven Naismith. Stone played under the now Hearts head coach with the B team.

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"I thought he was great last year and being a person who was in the building before now being a first-team manager, he knows everyone, he’s great with the players individually," he said of Naismith. "He is great to work with during that year with the B team. He got us involved in the passing and possession and felt my game improved a lot with my feet just for one example."

The goalkeeper, who has been on loan at The Spartans, Stirling Albion, Albion Rovers and Partick Thistle, was involved in pre-season, impressing in an early friendly with Dunfermline Athletic at East End Park, but it was imperative, following his campaign in the Lowland League, that he played first-team football.

"This pre-season it was me, Zander and Craigy but obviously Craigy was still coming back from his injury," he said. "I think the main thing is Hearts are a back club, the third biggest in Scotland, it would benefit me to have experience at a level closer to the Premiership to then hopefully step in and challenge for a place at Hearts in the future. Nothing against the B team and Albion Rovers, but I have to have experiences which better me.

READ MORE: Pressing, decisions and second balls: How Hearts turned the tide against Aberdeen

"Playing is the most important thing for a goalkeeper, no matter what level. I feel wherever I’ve played I’ve managed to further my career which is a positive thing. Partick was one where I didn’t end up playing and came out and went on loan back to Albion Rovers. Setbacks like that happen but playing was the most important thing and that’s what it was this season after Mick McGovern signed. Naisy spoke to me and said if I can get a whole season under my belt that will do really good things for my experience and my career."

That's the aim of the loan spell. To broaden horizons, to gather different experiences and to develop. For a goalkeeper, it is even more pronounced than it is for an outfield player. Young forwards or midfielders can learn on the job and make mistakes without being punished. The man between the sticks can hardly afford to learn on the job. They just need to do it. 

"A younger [outfield] player may be able to get away with a few mistakes, somebody else may be able to dig them out of a hole and they improve by being around those players,” Craig Gordon told Hearts Standard in an interview earlier this season. “But a goalkeeper, you need to perform. There is no bedding yourself in, making a few mistakes, it’s okay, next time. That doesn’t happen as a goalkeeper at any level."

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Stone experienced that at Thistle.

"I made a mistake quite early on in the season," he said. "We lost and I came out of the team. Jamie Sneddon got 10 clean sheets in a row and got Player of the Year. Credit to him.

"When you make a mistake you are likely to find yourself out of the team. You do need to be very consistent whereas an outfield player might drop to the bench for a few games but get the chance to work his way back in off the bench."

He could be forgiven for thinking he was suffering a case of deja vu. In October he was replaced by Botterill after five games. But this time he won back his place.

READ MORE: How Steven Naismith wants Hearts to get better at producing academy talent

"I felt hard done by, personally, but I spoke to Marvin and he said it had been nothing I had done but results weren’t going the way he wanted to and he wanted a bit more experience in the other goalkeeper," Stone explained. 

"I was obviously frustrated at not playing but I didn’t have a problem with his explanation. He told me to keep working at it and I worked on things that he said I could improve on. He pulled me back a few weeks later and said he had been really impressed. I came back in against Alloa.

"It probably ended up being better for me because I managed to work on something that I maybe wouldn’t have if I hadn’t come out of the team. It was a good learning."

What were the improvements he had to make?

"It was to do with my presence, my organisation," Stone said. "I was giving a lot of information but I learned that it is very difficult to get that through to the players in the heat of the moment. So I started focusing on shorter, sharper shouts, keeping boys switched on which made a big difference. Being louder in general."

Off the field, Stone won't make changes to his personality to suit others. He stays true to himself. But on the pitch, he has had to make tweaks. It is something he had been working on prior to his loan move and with the assistance of the psychologist Hearts employ to ensure all aspects of a player's development are being catered for.

READ MORE: Life on the road: Why Lewis Neilson left Hearts on loan to further his development

No position has the demands and pressure that a goalkeeper does. The last line of defence. One mistake can be fatal in relative terms. There is no hiding place, especially in front of bigger crowds.

"I didn’t really see one until last year when he came up to me and asked if I wanted to have a chat," Stone revealed. "I hadn’t gone to him with a specific thing to work on. He did it to everyone, just asked if I wanted to catch up. It’s definitely something that players can utilise. 

"I was speaking to him about being more assertive on the pitch. I’m not going to change who I am off the pitch, it is important to stick to who I am but definitely on the pitch I am able to switch that personality now. 

"That was maybe something I felt when I went on loan to Partick Thistle. I was playing in front of a crowd of fans. I had never really done that before because my first loans were in the Covid season. There is definitely a lot more pressure when there are people there and goalies get a bit more abuse standing right beside them for the full 90.

"Dealing with that and pressure is something a goalie needs to be able to do."

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There is no doubting Stone's shoot-stopping abilities. His handling of shots is excellent and he moves across the goal incredibly quickly, possessing great agility. He has produced brilliant saves in recent weeks to deny players at point-blank range in games against Kelty Hearts, Stirling Albion and Annan Athletic.

He is currently part of the youngest team in League One, traveling to the club's training base in Hamilton in a car school that includes former Hearts youngster Cammy Logan. It is not uncommon for the defence in front of him to be the same age or younger, with the exception of Efe Ambrose, the former Hibs and Celtic defender. That presence, assertiveness and organisational qualities take on greater importance. 

"We are a young squad this year and I think by design," he said. "It probably highlighted my need for organisation and has helped me come along because in previous loans I’ve had a lot more experience as a collective that helped guide me through games when I was 18, 19.

"Now we are all the same age, all trying to help each other and Efe’s that main focal point leading everyone."

READ MORE: Inside Hearts academy: Why change in recruitment, best signing, ex-player importance

The goal is to return to Hearts a more-rounded goalkeeper. 

He said: "I think I am definitely more confident on the ball and assertive on the pitch or try to be anyway! That’s always been the side to my game I’ve wanted to improve. I feel that as I play each year I am only getting better at those."

The Tynecastle club value the player highly. Gallacher is in regular contact with Stone, while Naismith has spoken to him on a couple of occasions during the loan spell. Just because he is out of sight, doesn't mean he is out of mind. He is working to be in a place to put his best foot forward come pre-season 2024, "proving what I’ve got in pre-season and what I’ve learned". It won't be for a lack of hard work either.

"I’ll never be questioned on my attitude," he said. "It’s one of the things I think is a good quality in myself. I will always work hard, always give 100 per cent even if I’ve been dropped or something has not gone my way."