Aside from the arrival of Craig Beattie in February, the resurgence of Darren Barr represents the closest thing Hearts manager Paulo Sergio has had to a new signing since taking over last summer.
Having arrived at Tynecastle on a three-year deal from Falkirk in summer 2010, big things were expected of Barr, who had earned Scotland recognition under George Burley on the back of his consistently-impressive performances as the Bairns skipper.
His big move didn’t initially go to plan, however, and, after struggling in his first few games under Jim Jefferies – with a 4-3 League Cup defeat against his old club proving particularly harrowing – Barr quickly found himself cast as a dud by many as he was banished to the periphery of the squad, making only two starts in the last seven months of his debut season.
Despite looking a certainty to depart Tynecastle last summer, he managed to stay put. After struggling with a hernia problem earlier in the current season, Barr began to force his way back into contention around the turn of the year. Since filling in sporadically for absentees in the defence, he has steadily set about rebuilding a Hearts career that had looked doomed before being given a proper chance to get going.
After a spurt of games in January helped repair his damaged confidence, Barr, a defender by trade, is now positively flourishing after being asked to anchor midfield in the absence of the injured Adrian Mrowiec.
The Glaswegian, 27, has now won over the majority of his detractors after a string of fine performances which have coincided with a good run of results for Hearts and, for the first time in his Tynecastle career, he can consider himself a first pick.
While many had their doubts about Barr’s ability to recover from his wretched start in Gorgie, anyone who had worked with him at Falkirk knew there was no chance of him chucking in the towel. “I’m delighted Darren’s back in the Hearts team,” said Ryan Flynn, the Loanhead-born Sheffield United player, who was a colleague of Barr’s at Falkirk.
“It’s taken him a while but I’m not surprised at all that he’s finally starting to prove himself. When we were at Falkirk together, he was brilliant for us, week in, week out. I was surprised things didn’t work out for him – I thought he would have done really well straight away. People were quick to criticise him when things didn’t go well at the start of his Hearts career but you don’t play for Scotland if you’ve not got ability. He just needed a bit more time to find his feet. I saw him against Hibs on TV recently and he played really well at centre-back. I also saw him in the game after that at St Mirren and he played really well in central midfield, although I’d never seen him play that position before. He’s getting his just rewards for persevering and having the mental strength to stick at it when things weren’t going so well. Hopefully, that tough period’s all behind him and it’s just good times ahead for him now.”
With Barr seemingly having found his feet, the Jambos look set to benefit from a player entering his peak years with an extra spring in his step after overcoming the most difficult period of a career that had previously promised big things.
“No disrespect to Falkirk, but when you go from a club of that size to a club of Hearts’ size, it’s only natural that it can take a bit of time to settle in,” said Gary Mackay, the legendary former Hearts midfielder.
“Darren’s always had promise but he’s been played in different positions – sometimes it’s just a case of being patient with players. It will have been a real test of character for him. He’ll have gone through a period of negativity where he’ll have started to question himself.
“But I’ve got no doubt he’ll have come out the other side a stronger and better player as a result of those negative experiences. He’s silenced a lot of people who were questioning whether he could cut it in the Hearts first team.
“The test for him now is to keep doing it week in, week out. He’s still relatively young and can play a variety of positions so that could come in useful for Hearts.”
At a time when Sergio has been given no room for manoeuvre in the transfer market, Barr’s unlikely emergence as an accomplished holding midfielder has been something of a boon.
“Darren coming back into things has allowed the manager the chance to freshen things up,” continued Mackay. “Paulo’s shown faith in Darren by giving him his longest run in the team and he’s rewarded him with some really solid performances. I think ultimately Darren will always be solid rather than a match-winner – he’s very much a Mr Reliable-type, similar to Andy Webster.
“He has good defensive qualities, but he can also pass the ball well. He doesn’t strike me as the type who wants to hog the limelight. He tries to keep the game very simple and allows the flair players to go and do their jobs. Because of his physique, he also adds to our threat at set-pieces.”
In his early days in Gorgie, Barr bore little resemblance to the sure-footed leader of men who had become so highly sought after at Falkirk.
Having rediscovered his mojo in recent times, however, the Scotland cap can be counted as a welcome addition to the already sizeable group of big characters plying their trade in maroon.
“He’s very vocal on the park and, as the Falkirk captain, he definitely helped me,” said Flynn, 23. “He was a great guy in the changing room and was our leader during a difficult time. He might not be captain at Hearts, but he’ll definitely still be a natural leader there.”