James Penrice had been a man in demand. The Livingston left-back, who came through the youth system at Partick Thistle, was out of contract at the end of the season, and the race for his signature was heating up. Just about every top-flight club bar Celtic and Rangers, as well as teams down south, were said to be monitoring the 25-year-old’s situation, keen to pick up the defender on a free transfer in the summer. But it was Heart of Midlothian that won the race.

The club announced him as the first signing of the summer, the player penning a three-year deal.

Steven Naismith was quick off the mark. There were still another three months to go until the transfer window reopened, but that didn't stop the Hearts head coach from assembling his squad for next season. A move for Ross County playmaker Yan Dhanda was already sewn up and before another two pre-contract deals were struck. One was for Motherwell’s Blair Spittal – and the other was for Penrice.

While Livingston were circling the drain and looking increasingly likely to get relegated, one thing had been clear: one way or the other, Penrice would be playing Premiership football next season. The full-back is by no means the finished article, but he has bags of potential and a good track record in his three seasons in West Lothian. It’s why he was on the radar of so many clubs – and why Hearts have moved quickly to get the deal done.

So, why was Penrice so sought after? What is it exactly that he can bring to Naismith’s team, and what areas of his game need a little work? Is he ready to come straight into the first team, or is he more likely to be a squad option? Let’s take a look.

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One to watch

Penrice was earmarked as one to watch early on in his career, and a move from Partick Thistle to the Premiership always had an air of inevitability about it. He earned that opportunity in the summer of 2021 and joined Livingston after sticking by the Jags during their demotion to League One, playing a vital role in helping Ian McCall’s side bounce back to the Championship at the first time of asking. By the time he departed Firhill, Penrice had racked up over 100 appearances and gained a good grounding in Scotland’s lower leagues.

Penrice has come a long way since then - but his progress comes as no surprise to Scott Allison, Thistle's former head of academy who now works at Nottingham Forest's youth set-up. It was Allison, in fact, who first signed Penrice for the Glasgow club.

“I used to work at Livingston, around 2005 or something like that,” Allison recalled. “One of the coaches I worked with then phoned me years later when I was at Thistle to say, ‘I’ve got a player here who is really decent and is looking for a club’.

“I was working with the Under-17s at the time and James came along for pre-season. He just trained to start off and I liked the look of him, so we got him signed up and he joined the Under-17s squad. He was 16 at the time. The academy at Thistle wasn’t very strong, and then we got the Colin Weir money. The first two players I signed were James and Kevin Nisbet, and James stood out.

“There were many people in James’ group who were given the same opportunities, but they didn’t always take them. With the technical ability that James had, the game understanding that he had, the attitude he had – he had all the characteristics to go far in the game.

“We then fast-tracked him. James benefitted from the old development league when it was Under-20s. James, Kevin and a few other boys from the Under-17s got a lot of exposure to that. And then it was Alan Archibald – and Archie had played as a left-sided defender – who decided that he liked what he saw with James and gave him a chance. He had an opportunity to train with the first team and what they liked about him was he was technically very sound. He could handle the ball in the right way and the first-team players respected that. He fitted in well and then off he went.

“We had a strategy for him – we sent him out on loan so that he was exposed to men’s football to try and accelerate his development. He went to East Fife and then he went to Livingston, back when they were in the Championship and we were in the Premiership.”

When Thistle were relegated to the second tier, Penrice would stick by the club. And when the 2019/20 season was curtailed due to Covid and the Jags found themselves demoted to League One, Penrice would again stick around to ensure the team righted that particular wrong. 

“When Thistle went down, James was in a position where he had that experience in the Championship, and the relegation was probably really good for his development because he became a first-team regular,” Allison explained. “And then by the age of 21, he had played 100 senior first-team games.

“We were really pleased with that because the strategy at youth level was to try and get them to at least 50 games by 21 in order to class them as a potential player for the future. He did a great job in the first team and got a good move to Livingston, which is his hometown team. He wanted to step up to the Premiership again and he seized that opportunity. I’m delighted for him.

“I’m glad he’s signing for Hearts because one of our big selling points at Thistle was, ‘Come here and get experience at a young age’. With what happened with Covid, we felt that was a false position for our club to be in. And to be fair to James, he was a really loyal player. He’s a really good lad as well.

“Hearts are getting somebody who is a really humble, hard-working, family-orientated lad. And he has worked hard to get to where he is. It’s not like in England where there are a lot of opportunities. He has had to work through the pathway. Having played so many games in all the different leagues, from League One up to the Premiership, he has got fantastic experience for the age he is at. Now he will go and prove himself at the top of Scottish football. It’s a good bit of business for Hearts and a good move for James as well.

“When the team were given that relegation to League One during Covid, James stuck at it and helped get the team back up. He earned his move to another level and then at Livingston, he keeps his head down and grafts away, and now he’s got another step up. With the type of character he is and the attitude he has, he hasn’t surprised me at all. He deserves everything that comes his way.”

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Progression at Livingston

It's fair to say that it has taken Penrice a while to get going at Livi, but it has been well worth the wait. He was a solid if unspectacular performer during his first two seasons in West Lothian, often playing in various positions and struggling to hold down a regular place in the starting XI. In his first season, Penrice was mainly playing at left-back in a back four but was occasionally deployed in midfield and even at left centre-half in a back three. His stats from that campaign are nothing to shout about, but it's important to remember that he was playing in the third tier the season before.

In his first two seasons, Penrice was a victim of his own versatility. As a technical full-back who is comfortable on the ball, David Martindale soon realised that Penrice made a handy utility player. He mainly featured at left-back in a back four or slightly further forward at left midfield and sometimes played through the centre or even on the right. Again, the final results don’t make for especially impressive viewing.

This season, however, Penrice has been a regular fixture at left wing-back at Livingston in front of a back three – his most natural position – and it has allowed him to play to his strengths. With some more defensive security behind him, Penrice has been given greater license to get forward, and into the final third where he can truly make his presence felt. The results speak for themselves.

There is still some work to be done in a defensive sense. Penrice is dribbled past a little too often, for instance, and could be stronger in the air, although there has been some good progress on this front. From a creative point of view, he ranks relatively poorly for dribbles completed, passing accuracy, and deep progressions (passes or dribbles into the final third). It should be noted, though, that Livingston’s direct style plays a big part here.

There are two areas where Penrice truly excels, though. He has a relatively high expected assists (xA) from open play, indicating that he creates good chances on a regular basis for a player in his position, and it isn’t hard to see why. He is in the 82nd percentile for successful crosses per 90 minutes for left-backs and left wing-backs in the Premiership. Hitting a lot of crosses and having a towering forward line to aim for certainly helps, but it’s an area of the game where Penrice has always excelled. He has racked up a total of 15 assists in his two-and-a-half seasons at Livingston, in a counter-attacking system where he doesn’t see an awful lot of the ball.

There has been progression at Livingston, but one gets the impression that the best is still to come. Playing for a team higher up the league, where he will have a lot more of the ball and less will be asked of him defensively, is more suitable for Penrice’s skill set.

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Going forward and getting back

It's little surprise that Penrice has excelled at left wing-back. He impresses going forward and is comfortable with the ball at his feet when driving into space. And he's got the end product to back it up.

Below is a typical example. Livingston are hitting Dundee on the counter, and there's space out wide. Penrice makes an overlapping run and then bursts forward into the final third.

He takes another touch, then curls an excellent ball towards the back post.

The cross finds its target - but the shot is blocked.

Those curling deep crosses towards the back post are Penrice's bread and butter, but he can hit all manner of deliveries. Take a look at the example below against Hibs. Penrice has the ball, shifts it out wide and then sprints forward into the space.

He wins the subsequent foot race and then dinks the ball into the centre-forward, who simply cannot miss.

Here's another example, this time against Ross County. Penrice spots the space in behind and times his run well to get on the end of Ayo Obileye's through ball.

Penrice is sprinting at full speed by the time he makes contact with the ball, and he's got a defender breathing down his neck. He doesn't have time to take a touch, so he drills it first-time across the six-yard box.

Somehow, no one can connect with the ball - but it's an excellent opportunity fashioned by Penrice.

Penrice is a technical player and decent on the ball but sometimes can be guilty of switching off and committing unforced errors. He doesn't always look especially comfortable as the last line of defence, and momentary lapses at the back have cost Livingston this season. 

Take a look at the example below. Dundee are on the attack, and they try to bend the ball around the defence.

Penrice is in a good position to begin with and intercepts the ball well. Then, for some reason, he opts for the short pass to a team-mate under heavy pressure.

Amadou Bakayoko hoovers it up, and now Livingston are 1-0 down.

Here's another example from earlier in the season. Livi are building out from the back, and have committed men forward when the ball is played out wide to Penrice.

Penrice allows the ball to roll across his body, signaling to his opponent what's about to happen, and then the pass forward is intercepted. 

Motherwell pounce forward and Penrice goes chasing after the ball, but he can't get there in time before it's shifted infield.

One through ball and a composed finish from Theo Bair later, and Motherwell go 1-0 up.

Penrice's radar suggests that he can be vulnerable in 1v1 situations at the back as well, so we are probably most likely to see Penrice feature at left wing-back to begin with, where he has more license to get forward and fewer defensive responsibilities, rather than on the left in a back four.

The 25-year-old does, however, possess great recovery pace. Take a look at the example below against Dundee. A long ball is chipped forward, and Penrice starts off just inside his own half and behind the ball. 

Penrice doesn't let that deter him, though. He goes haring after the ball, gets there first, and plays a safe pass back to the goalkeeper.

The raw ingredients for an excellent player are there. His decision-making could be better at times, but this can be coached. The natural talent that Penrice possesses is far, far harder to learn. 

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Competition for Cochrane

With all due respect to Livingston, there is little doubt that Penrice is ready for a step up to a higher level. That is precisely what he will get at Hearts, as well as a fierce battle for a place in the starting line-up. A place, for now, that is occupied by Alex Cochrane.

The radar above compares Penrice (red) and Cochrane (blue) across a range of key metrics for a wing-back. There are a few areas where Cochrane has Penrice comfortably beaten (Cochrane is dribbled past far less regularly, completes a lot more deep progressions, and commits fewer turnovers) but the pair are largely similar in a few areas, and there are somewhere Penrice comes out on top. Penrice is busier off the ball, completes more tackles and interceptions (adjusted for possession), commits fewer fouls, and hits more successful crosses per game with a higher accuracy.

Going by the data, Cochrane is likely to remain first choice but it is important to remember that Penrice is playing in a poor Livingston team, while Cochrane is one of the best left-backs in the league playing for a team that is comfortably the third-best in the country. With a bit of time, who knows what Penrice could achieve? Just look at Alan Forrest, who has become a key player under Naismith after initially being signed as a squad option from Livingston.

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It looks like Penrice will challenge Cochrane at the very least. The former Scotland Under-21 internationalist is perhaps better suited to games where Hearts have lots of the ball and are looking to break down a deep-lying defence, whether that be in a back four or as a wing-back. It’s a role that’s similar to the one that Dexter Lembikisa fulfills on the other wing, but with one crucial distinction: rather than driving forward, taking on his man then hitting a cross into the box, like Lembikisa does, Penrice excels when hitting early deliveries from deep. It offers Hearts another way of attacking their opponents, and some more variation in this department surely wouldn’t go amiss.

There is every chance, too, that Penrice could quickly find himself with a chance of winning a regular place in the starting XI. With Cochrane entering the final 12 months of his contract in the summer, the next window could well be Hearts’ last chance to cash in on the Englishman. If that does transpire, then Penrice will have some big shoes to fill - but, in time, he can do just that. However, to begin with, it shouldn't be assumed that he is Cochrane's replacement.

All in all, Penrice looks to be a savvy addition for Hearts. He is an up-and-coming player with the potential to improve further, and he is entering his prime years with a good wealth of Premiership experience under his belt. Similar to Dhanda and Spittal, Penrice has been a standout performer at a team further down the standings and one who is deserving of a step up to the next level to show what he can do. There is still some fine-tuning required on the training pitch but there is little doubt that Penrice is a player with potential. He is already delivering on that potential, but the best is still to come – and Hearts will reap the rewards.