"I must give a lot of credit to a lot of the new players and the younger ones in the squad, they’ve stepped up," Steven Naismith noted ahead of Heart of Midlothian's 2-0 win over Celtic earlier this month.

That win strengthened the team's hold of third place in the Scottish Premiership, increasing the lead to what is beginning to look like an insurmountable 13 points. A week later, on Monday night, Hearts progressed to the Scottish Cup semi-final — their second trip to Hampden Park this season.

All that has been achieved with the second youngest squad in the league with an average age of 26.2. Only Dundee is younger at 26. More than that, Naismith's starting XI, on average, is the youngest in the Premiership.

It is the first time in the last five top-flight campaigns that the average age of the squad is lower than the league average (this season it is 26.9) as per data from StatsBomb. Last season the average age of the squad was 27.2. In 2021/22 it was 27.3. The ill-fated 2019/20 squad had an average age of 26.6 with the campaign previous at 26.7.

The reduction in the average age of the team was not viewed as a priority since Naismith took charge but it is a consequence of squad building and the balance the head coach has wanted to strike in terms of the categories of players within his squad.

"I wouldn’t say it has been a conscious thing but I understand that dynamic happens," Naismith told Hearts Standard. "I think for us as a club, our model, we need to bring players through the academy, promote them, get them in the team and go onto bigger and better things. That is success for us.

"Secondly, if we are not doing that and we are bringing players to the club they need to be assets. The best way to do that is by bringing in someone who is younger, improving them, making them better and you either sell them on or they stay in your team for years and they bring you success."

Equally, Naismith was keen to stress the importance of having a blend that includes experience, guys who are in or coming into the "twilight" of their careers. They form one of four age categories that, for the Hearts head coach, make up his squad. 

"I think we are really fortunate at Hearts that we’ve got Craig Gordon, [Liam] Boycie and, to an extent, Zander [Clark] who are in the top category. Ideally, I may have had one other in that, if you like, twilight zone.

"Below that you’ve got your experienced core, Lawrence Shankland, [Stephen] Kingsley, Barrie McKay, Craig Halkett, Frankie Kent. These guys that lead, buy into what you want and they are the guys you are relying on most weeks.

"The third of four groups, guys who have not reached their full potential, the value, the prospects, the guys we think are going to develop into really good players, Beni [Baningime], [Alex] Cochrane, Kenneth [Vargas], Yutaro [Oda], Calem [Nieuwenhof]. They are the ones who are consistent but have their moments and maybe need to come out the team but not that regularly, maybe an injury, one or two weeks out and back.

"The last category is your potential and that mostly comes from your academy players up to 21."

READ MORE: Hearts and the 'consistent' recruitment approach that could lead to third

Naismith has used his own experiences as a player to help guide him and shape his view on squad building. He admitted to frustration at both Everton and Norwich City where there was greater stock put into the younger players who were given more "leeway". But with hindsight, he can understand why that happened but also the need to, at the same time, ensure the older players are given respect.

"I left Everton when I was 29," he said. "Just before I left I had John Stones, Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu breaking in and I had been a consistent performer but had gauged that I had to have above average performances and when one of the younger boys had opportunities they had more leeway.

"At the time it was a frustration and partly why I felt I had to move. Looking back on it, the way to develop players, you need to give them that freedom and time in the team. When I went to Norwich and Daniel Farke came in he wanted to work with a younger squad. I was a consequence of that, that’s how my move to Hearts came about.

"At the time I found it difficult to deal with because I was a really good pro, the manager was really engaging with me at the start but years later when you look at it, it was just a footballing decision and over my time thinking back at my career, these moments I now understand why the coaches did that at the right time."

READ MORE: Macaulay Tait's Hearts journey: Summer camps, Lowland League, first-team role

This season Naismith has had to deal with not being able to call on some of the squad's key and most experienced players because they have been absent for large periods due to injury. Boyce, McKay, Halkett, Peter Haring and Gordon have all played under 700 minutes of league football. Only Boyce has played more than 500 minutes. It has resulted in a greater reliance on younger players and new signings whom Naismith may have preferred to drip-feed into the team. 

That can be seen at the top end of the pitch. Boyce and McKay have been big misses. Naismith has spoken about the maturity of the team in attack and admitted that the likes of Kenneth Vargas and Yutaro Oda have "suffered individually at times" but are "probably better for it now". Some of the younger players in the squad have had their development turbo-charged. It "can go two ways" according to Naismith, but he believes those individuals in his squad have been up to the task due to their character.

"I think it’s really good, the younger ones are desperate to learn," he said. "One of the biggest things with transfers is character for me and I think we’ve done that really well this season.

"Kenneth played a lot of football in a lot of games at the start. Even when he was fatigued and maybe did a lot of the work that wasn’t rewarding for him or probably the fans but his character is such that it didn’t get him down. He constantly enjoyed the challenge of being in the team and performing. He’s got the right mindset, he’s got a drive that he wants to get better."

Naismith has used 28 players in the league this season. Of those 28, six have played fewer than 300 minutes. Finlay Pollock, Macaulay Tait, Odel Offiah, Scott Fraser, Andy Halliday and McKay. On the flipside, seven have played upwards of 2000 minutes. Nieuwenhof, Cochrane, Kye Rowles, Shankland, Kent, Kingsley and Clark.

The squad size is something Naismith is keen to ensure is at the right size to ensure there are opportunities for younger players. Tait and Pollock, as well as Denholm (497 minutes) should continue to add to their tally between now and the end of the season. James Wilson has played in the Scottish Cup, while Callum Sandilands, who has caught the eye in training, and Bobby McLuckie were on the bench against Greenock Morton.

"I think it is really important we have that block of potential players that are in the squad," he said. "First of all, they are there because we think they are good enough to play but secondly, if you have quite a lot of injuries in one area it inevitably and subconsciously forces your hand to put them in the team and give them opportunities.

"That has happened at times and when it happens it builds trust, it builds understanding and inevitably gets you to the point we are comfortable to start Denholm away to Celtic, comfortable to start Denholm against Rosenborg, comfortable to bring Macaulay on 2-0 down against Dundee.

"These are things that come from the dynamic of the squad. It’s about having a clear path, giving an opportunity and having a good judge of character and a good judge of where a player is at and pushing the button at the right time to get them to the next stage of their career."

He added: "You need to have the right balance. I think we have got that balance."

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

The squad breakdown

In late 2021, The Athletic undertook research and ran a series that looked at age profiles of squads, determining when is the peak age for a footballer, breaking it down to position:

Goalkeeper: 27-29

Full-back: 24-26

Centre-back: 26-28

Central midfielder: 24-26

Wide attacker: 25-27

Central attacking midfielder: 25-27

Striker: 26-28

Now, that is a rough guide, a general rule of thumb if you will. Individuals can, we have seen, peak at different ages or simply stay in their peak for years. 

You could look at the two Hearts goalkeepers for an example. Zander Clark, many thought, hit his peak towards the end of his St Johnstone career but has maintained that, or even improved, since playing regularly at Tynecastle Park. 

You also have to factor in that you don't want the whole squad to be in their 'peak years'. There is a need for a balance as Naismith noted.

Looking ahead to next year, Hearts will likely be losing 30-year-old Peter Haring who is out of contract at the end of the season, while adding Yan Dhanda who is 25. There has also been reported interest in James Penrice who is also 25.

READ MORE: Why a Hearts pre-contract move for Yan Dhanda makes sense


Hearts currently have a goalkeeping ranks that will be the envy of many clubs in Scotland with two international keepers in Gordon and Clark. One is a goalkeeping legend at the club and the other is the man keeping him out of the team. One is 31 and the other 41. There is a big drop off in age to the likes of Liam McFarlane and Harry Stone.


Once a position that would be taken up by experienced pros, it is now a younger man's role. The full-back (or wing-back) is a physically demanding job. As such, Hearts have good ages in those roles. Both Alex Cochrane and Nathaniel Atkinson are only 24. On-loan Dexter Lembikisa is just 20 and there are high hopes for Harry Forrester and Ethan Drysdale, two teenagers who have impressed with the B team.


There is a nice balance in a position that requires lived experience. Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley, both 29, provide that. As does Frankie Kent who is a year younger. All three provide a reliable presence with the trio proving themselves to be key players at periods across the past three seasons. Just outside the 'peak age' for a centre-back on the other side are Kye Rowles and Toby Sibbick. Next season Naismith will be able to add Lewis Neilson who is still a few years away from that peak.

Centre midfielder

Hearts are well stocked in the position and have a wide spread of ages. Macaulay Tait, Finlay Pollock, Aidan Denholm and Calem Nieuwenof are aged between 18 and 23. Cammy Devlin and Beni Baningime are in that peak age period, while Peter Haring is the experience. 

Central attacking midfielder

A contrast to the above category. Jorge Grant and Scott Fraser are both 29. Yan Dhanda will arrive at a good age. Behind that you are looking at someone like Callum Sandilands.

Wide attacker

There is a good mix with Yutaro Oda and Kenneth Vargas in that developmental and potential stage. Alan Forrest has, at 27, reached the highest point in his career with Barrie McKay offering the experience at 29.


Finally, we arrive at the men at the top of the pitch. Again, there is an even split of three forwards. One in the apparent peak period (Lawrence Shankland), another in Kyosuke Tagawa still to enter it and Liam Boyce on the other side.