FOUR pre-season friendlies provided a strong indication of how John McGlynn’s Hearts team will take shape. The new manager’s philosophy is clear with the SPL kick-off merely 48 hours away – as are the players he will rely on.
Paulo Sergio has gone, as have many of those who thrived working under him, therefore the team which trots out of the Tynecastle tunnel to face St Johnstone on Saturday will be indisputably McGlynn’s.
The first game of season 2012/13 allows a month of preparations to be put into practice. Games against McGlynn’s former club Raith Rovers, plus Falkirk, Dunfermline and Rotherham United offered a low-key build-up for the Hearts players while allowing their manager to fine-tune without courting publicity. Three wins out of four and three cleans sheets is a reasonable return.
It was made clear long before Sergio and Hearts parted company that this season would see an influx of youth talent to the senior team from the club’s highly regarded academy.
Indeed, it is fair to assume this played a major part in the recruitment of McGlynn, a former Tynecastle youth coach who took many of the club’s current protégés on loan to Raith.
“I’ve come here to bring youngsters through and I’m not frightened of that,” he said after defeating Raith 3-0 in his first outing as Hearts manager. Callum Paterson, aged only 17, scored the first goal that afternoon and has been a revelation throughout the summer matches. He is one of several kids McGlynn is charged with honing.
The favoured formation, at least to begin with, appears to be 4-3-3, with the emphasis on attacking full-backs and an industrious midfield unit.
Paterson has played right-back in all pre-season matches and is certain to remain there. On the opposite flank, with Danny Grainger serving a one-game suspension carried over from last season, 19-year-old Kevin McHattie will play left-back against St Johnstone.
Paterson’s pace in particular helps him cope among more established and experienced players. Versatility is another of his strengths. He can operate anywhere on the right side and was used as a forward at times by Hearts youth coach Darren Murray.
Whenever Hearts break from defence, expect to see him galloping up the flank to join in attacks. His deliveries from wide areas are good and he also possesses a monster long throw.
McHattie, prised from the youth ranks of Dunfermline two years ago, is less explosive but no less effective. He will stride forward whenever attacks are being built down the left, and, like Paterson, his crossing could become an asset.
Defensive attributes are his best and he is expected to mount a strong challenge to first-choice left-back Grainger this year.
Andy Webster has been his usual, unflappable self in recent weeks and is the commanding and most experienced presence within the Hearts back four.
Alongside him at centre-back, Marius Zaliukas looks steady save for the odd erratic pass from defence. Both will be key figures this season in helping young players through their first-team initiation, along with the reliable Jamie MacDonald in goal.
McGlynn favoured Scott Robinson and Ryan McGowan in midfield for much of the pre-season campaign and those two are expected to start this weekend. Robinson has long been considered a player of huge potential and, with Ian Black gone to Rangers, has a priceless opportunity to cement himself in midfield. His energy and dynamism should not be underestimated, although it should be remembered he only turned 20 in March.
For McGowan, this is unchartered territory. He excelled at full-back last year under Sergio and previously played in central defence and central midfield during his formative years.
However, McGlynn sees the Australian more as an attacking midfielder. With his energy and aptitude for getting into the penalty area, he has been asked to offer John Sutton support from midfield whenever possible and has performed the role with customary diligence so far.
Perhaps the only place still to be finalised ahead of this weekend’s SPL opener is that of the third central midfielder.
Odds are that Darren Barr will fill this position, having done so at Rotherham last Saturday in Hearts’ final pre-season fixture.
The front three virtually picks itself: John Sutton through the middle, flanked by Andy Driver and David Templeton.
Sutton’s return from a loan spell with Central Coast Mariners of Australia has been timed impeccably and seen him score three goals in four pre-season appearances. He is Hearts’ only real experienced striker, with Gordon Smith, David Smith and Dale Carrick the pretenders to his throne. Early form indicates Sutton will not be abdicating any time soon.
Denis Prychynenko, Arvydas Novikovas, Jamie Walker and Jason Holt are the other contenders for first-team places. But McGlynn already knows who will start on Saturday. He has been planning this for weeks.