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Valdas Ivanauskas <-auth Barry Anderson auth-> Thomas Prammer
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Euro tour is Driver's chance to mix it with big Hearts


THE heels of Senegalese internationalist Souleymane Fall will likely still have smoke bellowing from them just now, for the defender received a serious roasting on his weekend trip to Windischgarsten.

The man on fire was Hearts' Andy Driver, an 18-year-old left winger who has come of age on this pre-season tour to the point of tormenting the established defenders of Spartak Trnava on Saturday evening.
His crossing expertise provided Hearts with two of their three goals against UEFA Cup-qualified opponents as Fall, the Slovakian side's first-choice right-back, suffered more than most. In the driving seat may be an apt pun, but Driver would never wish to rest on the incision he has made on the team.

It says much for the intentions of new head coach Valdas Ivanauskas that Driver, a product of Tynecastle's youth development programme, has joined reputable names like Hartley, Jankauskas and Fyssas on this tour. As the youngster absorbs knowledge like a sponge day by day, he cannot have overlooked the fact that other experienced members of the squad have been overlooked.

Scotland internationalist Jamie McAllister could arguably fill the left-sided midfield slot vacated by Rudi Skacel but he remains back in Edinburgh along with Lee Johnson and Chris Hackett. Driver is here, and his tormenting of Fall gave clear evidence of his rising to the challenge.

"You have to prove yourself against these players," he says. "You just have to try and be the best player on the park every week, that's what my dad keeps saying. I didn't know where my marker was a lot of the time but when I got the ball I found myself in a lot of space, so it was then up to me to deliver it into the box.

"I don't know what's happening with the guys who aren't here but I have to try and prove that I can reach their level. They're experienced players and I'm nowhere near where they are at the moment."

He's humble too, apparently. An accurate cross for Deividas Cesnauskis to slot home Hearts' opener in their 3-1 weekend victory set the tone for an engrossing performance by Driver. For a follow up, he planted one on the head of Edgaras Jankauskas and the Lithuanian's effort was palmed out by Spartak goalkeeper Miroslav Hrdina for Cesnauskis to claim his second.

Whilst all this was going on, Fall was busy paying to get back into the tiny Stadion Windischgarsten. "Don't know where those crosses came from," laughs Driver, looking almost embarrassed to admit they were produced by his own left foot.

"I was happy with them. I've been told just to keep doing what I'm good at, which is get the ball and cross it. I had nothing else on my mind other than getting the ball in the box and luckily two of them came off. Valdas hasn't put any pressure on me, he just wants me to do my normal thing. My game is the same as it was through all the youth levels at Hearts.

"It's a big thing for a young player, being in the first team. The other night against Linz was the first time I ever played for the first team. It's going well, you feel much sharper training with the first team and given the quality of player we have it is bound to improve you.

"Saturday was a much better performance than we gave against Linz. I thought we were much sharper as a team."

At this point, one thing should be made abundantly clear. Driver is no Skacel, nor should he be billed as a replacement for the original despite favouring the same wide left berth. Putting such pressure on a developing talent would be a crime worse than the Czech's dramatic exit from Tynecastle.

In any case, his playing style is in stark contrast to Skacel's. Driver's approach is more akin to that of an old-fashioned winger, a tanner ba' player with the modern-day willingness to put in a shift for those around him. And in that respect he has a fairly decent role model.

"Neil McCann has been a great help, constantly helping me out and giving pointers if I'm going wrong somewhere," says Driver. "He's good with me and I've never had anyone who's been like that with me before. Plus I've got John McGlynn there who knows me well. I've had John coaching me all the way up. He's been watching our games since under-15s and then through the youths and reserves. He's been a great guide for me."

Driver moved to Edinburgh from Oldham in 1999 when his father, a project manager, switched jobs. He joined Hearts six months later during his second year at high school and progressed through the initiative leagues and then on to a professional contract with the club.

He retains his Lancashire tones, but that he has mixed well with the varying nationalities around him in Austria is indisputable. He signed a new two-year contract at the end of last season whilst helping Hearts under-19s to the SFA Youth Cup final, where they eventually lost out to Celtic in Glasgow. Ivanauskas recognised the potential he had on his hands by naming Driver amongst the Hearts substitutes towards the end of last season as tension heightened with a Champions League qualifying place at stake.

"It was a good experience being on the bench," said the teenager. "I actually made the bench under Craig Levein for one game but that was ages ago and with all the international players coming to Hearts now you don't expect to get in any time soon.

"But if you want to make it you have to get yourself better. So it's not necessarily a bad thing if all these players are coming in."

Not when they are being complemented by exciting home-grown talent. Driver has created a thoroughly positive impression of himself in a period when Hearts are building for an exciting season. He couldn't have timed it better.

Taken from the Scotsman

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