THE soul-destroying furrow of a lone striker has been Stephen Elliott’s for long enough. Most of his Hearts career, in fact. Now, with Craig Beattie on board, the Irishman wants to develop a partnership but knows time is against him.
Both Elliott and Beattie are out of contract at the end of the season, giving them a maximum six games left together to convince the Tynecastle hierarchy they are a pairing worth keeping – five post-split SPL fixtures and a gargantuan all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final against Hibs.
Sunday’s semi-final was a fairly productive start. Beattie’s half-time introduction changed the complexion of a game Celtic were controlling. Elliott’s first-half efforts, although not lacking in industry, had little effect. He came to life when Beattie was introduced and seemed to feed off the Scot’s infectious appetite.
The end result saw Hearts edge into the final with a 2-1 win – courtesy of Rudi Skacel’s goal and Beattie’s late penalty – championing the case of both players. Elliott has craved a partner ever since injury denied him the assistance of Kevin Kyle 15 months ago. Throughout that period, he has toiled whenever asked to function as a sole attacking presence, and endured a good deal of frustration playing a role that suits very few forwards.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that just as both he and Beattie are overcoming niggling injuries, their time at Tynecastle could be approaching an end. Elliott is hoping they can persuade Vladimir Romanov and Sergejus Fedotovas to let them spearhead the club’s attack next season.
“Beats has been brilliant since he came here,” Elliott told the Evening News.
“I’ve had to play as a lone striker for most of the season and the manager had that gameplan on Sunday to stop Celtic playing. But I think when Beats came on, since we had two up front, it gave their defenders a little bit more to think about.
“We were able to get in behind them more and create chances. We couldn’t have asked for a better start to the second half than Rudi’s goal. The ball came through and the Celtic defence got turned. We hadn’t really done that much in the first half. We caught them off guard and Rudi did what he does best, stuck the ball in the net.
“Nobody expected us to beat Celtic, other than ourselves. We knew we had a gameplan and we knew we’d beaten them twice in the last couple of seasons. If we kept them at bay we always thought we’d get chances. The manager was able to identify that things weren’t really going as planned in the first half and he changed it.
“Who would have thought we’d get a penalty in the last minute against them? It’s a great way to win it, although I think everybody’s heart was in their mouth when Craig stepped up. Thankfully, he put it away.
“We’d like more time to work at it together up front. I hadn’t played since the derby game because I’ve been struggling with injury. I was doing my best to be fit for the semi-final. Beats has had a niggle and couldn’t play against Dunfermline. Neither of us was 100 per cent but we managed to get out there and put in a good performance to get us to the final.
“I’m out of contract so I just want to play as much as possible between now and the end of the season and see what happens down the line. That situation will take care of itself once the season is finished and everybody knows what’s happening. For now, I’m just concentrating on every game through to the final because it’s going to be such a historic day for the city of Edinburgh.
“I don’t know if winning the cup would make my case stronger or not. It just down to whoever makes the decision at the end of the season. I’ll concentrate on the football, put 100 per cent effort in for Hearts and hopefully come away with a trophy at the end of it.”
Elliott is approaching the end of his second season in Edinburgh since severing ties with Preston North End in August 2010. His only regret is that he hasn’t managed to ripple more nets in Scotland.
“I’ve really enjoyed it at Hearts,” he continued. “I’ve had to move my young family up to Edinburgh and that’s been fine. I’ve played a fair bit in the team, although I would have liked to score a few more goals. As long as I’m playing and I feel like I’m giving my all to the team, that’s all that matters.”
He certainly exhausted himself on Sunday before being substituted 12 minutes from time for Denis Prychynenko. The priority now is preparing for Rangers at Tynecastle this weekend. The clamour for Elliott and Beattie to start up front together is steadily growing, and their fortunes between now and the end of the season will have a major impact on whether they are offered new contracts.
“Rangers is another big game for us and we have to lift ourselves again for that,” said Elliott. “But it’s not every year you get to the Scottish Cup final after beating the champions in the semi, so there’s a great feeling amongst the lads. We’re full of confidence now.
“We want to finish as high as possible in the league and if we’re winning games then we hope other teams ahead of us will slip up. If we show the same fight and determination as Sunday, then we’ll be fine come the end of the season.
“Rangers will probably be happy that we’ve beaten Celtic because, a few weeks ago, Celtic were going for the treble. Now that’s gone out the window all of a sudden. Kilmarnock beat them and we got to the cup final by beating them. At the start of the season, if you’d have said we would make the cup final then I think all the fans would’ve taken that. With it being against our local rivals, it makes it that bit special.
“As footballers, we’re going to be professional and concentrate on each game individually from now till the end of the season. But you know at the back of your mind that you’ve got a big showcase final to come on the last day of the season.
“We enjoyed Sunday, it was a great result beating the champions in the cup semi- final. However, the final will be different.
“I know we’ve had the upper hand over Hibs for the last few years but that goes for nothing. They will be going into the game thinking they can win and we need to deal with that.”