When James Penrice visited Tynecastle Park at the start of the week ahead of the announcement of him becoming a Heart of Midlothian player on a three-year deal he was accompanied by his family. It was a big moment for the 25-year-old. 

From the Livingston academy to the country's third-biggest club via Partick Thistle, a further two spells at Livi and a loan at East Fife. There was obvious pride as well as excitement. Penrice was buzzing at the prospect. He has likely been that way since meeting Steven Naismith prior to agreeing to join Hearts on a pre-contract.

The versatile defender is the first of the arrivals who will be announced over the course of the next week or so. And, in the words of David Martindale the Livingston manager, Hearts have "won a watch" with the addition.

In an interview with Hearts Standard, Martindale was effusive in his praise of the player, both as a footballer and as a person. He spoke of his resilience, his development, how he was the club's "outstanding player" in the first half of the season and why the injury that ruled him out of the run-in contributed to the side's relegation from the Premiership after six seasons as a top-flight team. 

The defender was with Livi for the final three of those, progressing into a highly-rated left-back. 

READ MORE: What Hearts can expect from James Penrice: Technique, drive, bags of potential

"He was a huge loss for us last season," Martindale said. "He got an injury and we never really quite got him back on the park. See when we lose a player of that quality at a smaller club we’ve got good players but we don’t have the squad depth. He had made left-back his own.

"I’m not trying to make excuses but want to show the relevance of how important a player he was for Livingston. He was a huge player. Looking at the start of the season I think James was by far our outstanding player up until he got his injury."

Martindale knows Penrice and his family well. He can remember conversations with the player's dad "going back 10-15 years" when he was a striker in Livingston's academy. "He was a forward player, really, really technical and always scored goals," the Livi boss remembered. Then came Partick Thistle. But their paths would cross when Livingston, then in the Championship, took him on loan from the Jags who were a Premiership side at the time.

If Martindale had it his way, Penrice would have signed permanently.

That was the first half of the 2017/18 season. Penrice would return to Firhill and start twice. He would, however, watch from the bench in the Premiership play-off final as Livi and Thistle swapped places. 

To Martindale, Penrice was already a Premiership quality player and still felt that way when he finally got his man after a season in League One. Since then the versatile left-back has begun to find those levels that Martindale always believed were in there.

"I know his family, I know James really well, I know his mum and dad really well," Martindale said. "I had tracked him for years because I stayed in Livingston when James was in the academy. I always knew a lot about him.

"Through that loan spell, I realised what he could do and I felt there was more to come from him. When I managed to get him back we managed to get that progress and development into him because I knew he had the technical ability and desire. It was just a matter of growing James, him maturing, getting him some game time and coaching time."

What's followed has been 77 Premiership games, different roles and plenty of experience. He was signed by Livingston as a left-back but such is his "forward-thinking" approach, "offensive traits" and technical qualities he found himself played at left wing, on the right of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and as a central midfielder.

That versatility was a huge advantage within the Livi squad. But this past season he laid an early marker down on the left of a back four or a back five following an injury to Cristian Montano.

"We bounced James back and he had actually improved a lot, his defensive game had improved a lot just with progression and training and playing with us," Martindale explained. "He was giving us a lot from behind the game.

"I seen a lot of offensive traits in him but when he got his opportunity to play at left-back he kind of came into his own a little bit. Looking between the three, four positions he could play, I think it became apparent that the more game time he got in the Premiership that he was going to be an outstanding left-back."

That development came through osmosis and experience as well as work on the training ground. He developed his physique, understanding his body, the conditioning required for a top-level footballer and nutrition. Muscle mass went up as body fat came down.

The development to become a more rounded footballer is exactly why Martindale feels as if Hearts have landed a real coup.

David Martindale gives Penrice instructions.David Martindale gives Penrice instructions. (Image: SNS)

"He has an eye for goal, plays forward, great crossing ability," he said of Penrice. "He built in the defensive side of his game and that came through his development in the Premiership, playing against better players. You have ultimately got to stand up and be counted. James done that.

"He had always had the offensive elements in his game but he now brought that defensive side. He was now starting to play against really good players at that level and doing very well, going away to Ibrox, Tynecastle, Parkhead, as a left-back.

"When I got James in the Premier League he started working on his game, gym sessions, his diet got better. His athletic capabilities took his game to the next level. He’s a great athlete, got a great engine, good stamina, turn of pace, cultured left foot.

"He’s worked really, really hard at the defensive side of his game. For me, I genuinely think Hearts have won a watch with him. This is me being really, really honest and people will maybe laugh at this but I can see James playing for Rangers, I can see James playing for Celtic. That’s how highly I rate him. He can look after the ball. Hearts are a top-three club so he wouldn’t look out of place playing for anyone in the top three in my opinion."

Martindale agreed when it was suggested that comparisons could be drawn to Alex Cochrane.

"Very, very similar when you look at both players," he said. "What I would say about Alex is that he’s now proved himself top three in Scotland, he’s playing with a top three team, getting European football. So Alex is probably just a couple of years ahead of him in terms of the progression of the level of football he has played but very, very similar because both can be used in a number of positions and they would do a very good job for you."

Penrice isn't the first player to make the short trip from Livingston to EH11, following Craig Halkett and Alan Forrest in recent years. 

Martindale believes that he is ready to make an immediate impact at Hearts while still having levels to reach to become an even better player at Tynecastle Park with the challenges that come with moving to the club.

He finished by talking up the player's mental side of the game, pinpointing it as a key reason for the strides he has made since joining Livingston and establishing himself as a Premiership quality star.

"I think so, 100 per cent," he said of room for development. "I’m not going to say there wasn’t demand on him at Livingston but there is going to be different demands on him now. I think James will hit the ground running. James is ready-made to step in and be a Hearts player and really show what he can bring to the table.

"Humble boy, good sense of humour, got a bit about him. You try and recruit the person before the athlete. I knew the background he came from, I knew him from his first loan spell so that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to bring him to the football club, because he’s a good type, a good sort.

"Most players have got ability but when you get players who have got that ability but also the mental resilience that gives me as a coach, as a manager the opportunity to develop and progress the player. That was one of the main focal points of me getting him back to Livingston, I know the individual, I know the characteristics. He’s a top, top professional now and he’s really worked on his mental resilience and robustness.

"I just think Hearts are getting, not a complete player because there is more to come, but they are getting an all-rounded athlete who I feel is ready-made for Hearts in the Premiership."