The pressure on youngster Krisztián Hegyi, on loan at Stevenage from West Ham, to perform in his first season in senior football is something that he's thriving on.
A goalkeeper’s senior debut can be daunting - one where the nerves often get the better of even the most prepared professionals.
But some flourish under that same pressure.
Krisztián Hegyi was handed his first senior start for Stevenage in August 2023 after joining on loan from West Ham. Thrust into first-team action by Steve Evans for an EFL Cup tie at home against Watford, Hegyi faced a new environment against a Championship opponent.
Despite conceding after six minutes, Hegyi and Stevenage dug in and hit back just before half time. As the match edged on, Watford started piling on the pressure in search of a late winner and a flurry of late chances came.
But Hegyi was on hand to keep Boro in the cup tie and produced a man of the match performance.
The Hungarian goalkeeper kept out Vakoun Bayo’s shot from point-blank range before stopping Ryan Hedges’ injury-time header with a reaction save. The sensational debut didn’t stop there as the game went to penalties. In the shoot-out, Hegyi saved Hedges’ penalty and Stevenage scored the following spot-kick to reach the third round.
“It was a day I will never forget to be honest,” Hegyi explained when reflecting on his debut in front of a packed Lamex Stadium.
“We won the game on the penalty shoot-out and it was such an amazing feeling, the crowd and everyone just congratulating me and I was feeling good about myself - that I could help the team and we got through so it was a good day.
“Before the game, I was a bit nervous, it was my first professional game in a first team so it was a good ending and just a great feeling.”
Hegyi evidently handled his senior debut professionally and composedly. The performance had been years in the making. After five years of rising through the ranks at West Ham and representing Hungary at the youth level, Hegyi was well prepared to make the step up to senior football.
Moments like the ones against Watford are the process of years of practice, as Hegyi explains.
“That’s why we work so hard on the training pitch so when these games come our way we can be well prepared and I felt like I’ve done that. Before this moment, I was working really hard with West Ham and then I felt ready for this game.”
And while the 21-year-old certainly savoured his full senior debut at Stevenage, he wasted no time looking ahead to the next fixture.
“It just happened, it was really quick. But then you see the next game is coming then the next day so it all goes quickly.”
Despite a long-term love of football, Hegyi’s specialisation in goalkeeping did not occur until he was older. Like many goalkeepers, his journey into the gloves started as a result of a team crisis rather than an individual desire to play in goal.
Hegyi knew he was well prepared for a spell between the posts though, thanks to a family love of handball - one of the most popular sports in Hungary.
“I started as a striker when I was about nine or 10 years old and the goalie in our team got injured. Because I was playing handball through my dad I wasn’t scared of the ball so I got into the goalkeeper position and since then I’ve loved it and I’ve stuck in there.”
Clearly, goalkeeping was a position that Hegyi was well suited for. A few years later after filling in the goalkeeper spot for his local youth team, Hegyi was representing Hungary at the international level as he was called up to the under-16 squad.
Soon after making his debut for the Hungary youth team, Hegyi’s abilities were receiving attention from top-level clubs as transfer interest from Europe started to circulate
Eventually, despite plenty of competition, Hegyi was signed by West Ham after a strong period of form for the Hungary under-16s and 17s.
“I was playing football in the academy in Hungary and I got picked up for the national team when I was playing for them. We had lots of friendlies in the under-16s and I got scouted through the help of agents to West Ham.”
The move was an appealing one for Hegyi and he relocated to East London in May 2019 and joined the club’s Academy of Football.
While such a transfer is the dream for many young players, it was a challenge for Hegyi at the beginning. The difficulties for a 16-year-old moving to a new country without family and without knowing the language took some toll in the beginning.
“It was strange at the start. I spent the first two months living in digs then my family came over and that was better and helped me so much.
“It became easier after that, my mum was there and my brother, so it was a lot easier than staying alone in digs.
“I think there were lots of challenges though. Obviously, the first one was the language. I had to learn English first of all to understand everything and that helped me massively. I was doing English lessons every day for one and half years so that was the first step I needed to do.”
Despite his young age at the time, it was clear that West Ham saw a bright future in their new Hungarian goalkeeper. It didn’t take long for Hegyi to make an impression on staff at the club, with first-team goalkeeping coach Xavi Valero backing the youngster to develop into a leading goalkeeper.
Hegyi soon progressed from the Academy of Football and integrated with the first-team squad. Whilst getting used to his new senior surroundings, one experienced goalkeeper provided invaluable support for Hegyi when he linked up with the Hammers’ first-team squad.
“For the under-18s, I played two seasons, but I was already training with the 21s and the first team sometimes, so I had early experience training with the first team and that was really good for me.
“Since day one when I came in for a trial I was training with the first team. I was only 16 and since then Fabianski was helping me with everything, talking to me and just trying to help me get better and I was thankful for him to help me in any way so that was really good.”
Yet, despite his involvement with the senior team and following his move to Stevenage, one motivation has remained a constant for Hegyi - keeping a starting place in goal.
“There were lots of challenges to be honest, always keeping my shirt, the number one, even if it’s under-18 level, it’s not always easy to do.”
Away from his development in England, Hegyi has been a long-term member of Hungary’s youth teams and has made nearly 50 appearances between under-16 and under-21 levels.
After an impressive 2021/22 season with West Ham’s under-23s, when he captained the team for several games in the Premier League 2 competition, Hegyi also received his first senior call-up for Hungary in March 2022.
However, the call-up came as a shock for Hegyi despite his form and achievements.
Even though he did not make his senior debut with Hungary, the 21-year-old was eager to take in as much as possible from the senior team.
“Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise, to be honest. There were some injuries at the time and that’s when I got my chance, but it was still an amazing feeling. I was feeling so proud of myself and for my family that it happened and I enjoyed every minute of it while I was there. Hopefully, it will happen again sooner or later in the future and that’s what I’m working for.
In addition, he enjoyed working in familiar surroundings being alongside some of his former under-21 teammates and learning from experienced players like captain Dominik Szoboszlai - which helped the transition from youth to senior level.
“It was good, obviously we have got a young team in the first team, there’s a lot of young players, so I was feeling good and comfortable since day one and some of my mates were there from the 21 team so it made it kind of easier.”
Each season, Hegyi is adding to his professional experience. His inclusion for Stevenage and Hungary at the senior level shows that many coaches and managers have faith in his ability to make it to the top level.
While Hegyi has made some big first steps this season, such as his debut in senior football and five additional starts for Stevenage in League One and the EFL Cup, he remains grounded and is desperate to keep learning his goalkeeping trade for the future.
“I want to try and get as many minutes as I can under my belt and try and get back into the team with a successful season.
“I’m still young and I’m still learning a lot, even if I don’t play every game, I can learn a lot of stuff outside the pitch as well, which helps me a lot.
“I’m just trying to stay humble and get ready for the next games so I’m ready to play.”