Aside from appeasing the dissenters, there is absolutely no legitimate case for Gary Locke to be removed from his position as Hearts manager.
While there is a general acceptance by many Tynecastle fans that they will simply have to grin and bear what is currently happening to their club, there are also some, incredibly, who feel Locke is not getting the best out of the squad at his disposal and that someone else – Craig Levein seems to be the popular choice – might be capable of better.
This argument might hold water if Locke were operating with a group of players who were proven elsewhere and were evidently underperforming under his watch. However, as everyone knows, his squad possesses only four players – Jamie MacDonald, Jamie Hamill, Danny Wilson and Ryan Stevenson – who have proven themselves over a reasonable period of time to be competent first-team footballers in Scotland’s top flight.
It is no coincidence that these four, despite also being heavily burdened by their team’s situation, have still been comfortably Hearts’ best players this season.
The others, as talented as they may be, have done nothing yet to warrant being considered first-team footballers at a Premiership team. Generally, all they have done is show promise in their teens. Their only football pedigree is having shone – excelled in some cases – in the Under-19 and Under-20 leagues, but this is a level which is arguably no higher than SPFL League 2 in terms of intensity, as evidenced by the fact clubs regularly loan their kids out to teams in this division in order to get them experience of “real football”.
It is clear that Hearts’ young players are generally decent technical footballers, but there is little evidence so far that any of them fall into the exceptional category or that they have the character required to forge a career in the professional game. As things stand, none of these boys has done anything in the Hearts first team that highly-regarded predecessors like Neil Janczyk, Robert Sloan, Joe Hamill, Paul McMullan and Jamie Mole didn’t manage.
All those players had plenty talent and showed it in fleeting glimpses in the first team – albeit in more favourable circumstances than the current crop – but ultimately went on to play out most of their careers at a far more modest level than Hearts.
Players like Locke, Scott Severin, Robbie Neilson, Christophe Berra and Lee Wallace are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to emerging through the youth ranks and carving a full-time career in the professional game. Most clubs are fortunate to nurture one young player per year who goes on to enjoy a full-time career at a decent level, never mind bring through a batch of around eight or nine in one season and expect them all to hold their own in Scotland’s unforgiving top flight. The law of averages would suggest that, in a few years’ time, perhaps only a few of these Hearts youngsters will have proven good enough to cut the mustard in full-time football, although right now it’s impossible to predict which ones that will be. They have all had a few good moments in the first team, but none of them have got anywhere near performing consistently at a level required for the Scottish Premiership. That is not to say they are applying themselves badly. Some of them may be playing out their skin just to hold their own, but simply aren’t good enough to survive at this level long-term. Others will, understandably, be feeling the effects of such a demanding situation. Either way, the whole concoction of adversity is manifesting itself in the form of costly individual mistakes, which are largely outwith the manager’s control given that he has no scope to take any errant, confidence-shorn players out of the firing line.
To put the Hearts youngsters’ baptism of fire into context, you need only compare what Jamie Walker, pictured, and Callum Paterson have been plunged into over the past 18 months against the relatively gentle introduction their fellow Scotland Under-21 internationalist Danny Handling has had at Hibs. Handling’s Under-20 pedigree is at least on a par with the Hearts pair, yet he has been dipped in and out of the first team depending on his form, while Walker and Paterson have been forced to play through their form dips in the full glare of ever-judgemental supporters to the point where their morale and physical condition has to be a concern.
The harsh truth is that Locke has at his disposal a squad which is nowhere near equipped for the Scottish Premiership, never mind trying to overcome a 15-point deficit in it. It could easily be argued that it’s a minor miracle that he kept the team’s faint survival hopes alive until Christmas, while also reaching a League Cup semi-final.
It’s high time the naysayers cut the manager some slack and stopped Hearts’ predicament becoming even more difficult than it needs to be.