EVEN amidst a player cull, Hearts’ squad remains the want of many an SPL manager. Therefore, it is with serious envy that Craig Brown welcomes this evening’s guests to Pittodrie.
Aberdeen’s player budget is maxed out, yet Brown can only dream about the depth of quality available to Paulo Sergio. Ambitions of toppling Hearts and re-establishing Aberdeen as Scotland’s third force remain on the back burner as the former Scotland manager juggles his resources.
More than 60 players were registered to Hearts before enforced financial cuts started earlier this month. Even with Eggert Jonsson, Calum Elliot and Janos Balogh gone, plus Ryan Stevenson unavailable, Riccarton remains a hive of talent, according to Brown.
The Dons have midfielder Peter Pawlett suspended tonight, plus strikers Mohamed Chalali and Josh Magennis injured. There will be a late decision on whether Fraser Fyvie is fit enough to start, but the absence of alternatives might force Brown to gamble on the youngster.
In contrast, Sergio has the luxury of rotating his squad and is preparing changes to the team which beat Motherwell at Tynecastle on Christmas Eve. Darren Barr and Andy Driver have been restricted to little game time this season and await an opportunity, whilst John Sutton may also return.
Brown admits the range of options available to Hearts is something all Scottish managers, even Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon, admire. “We know Hearts have a far bigger squad than probably every team in the SPL, maybe even including the Old Firm,” he said. “They have a big group of good, quality guys, so we realise this is a difficult home fixture. I’ve got great admiration for the Hearts playing staff. There are some excellent players there.
“I don’t know Paulo very well at all but I’ve found him to be a real gentlemanly guy and someone worthy of respect. Although they’ve had their troubles, it’s helpful when you have enough good players.
“Ryan Stevenson, for example, is seemingly in dispute but I knew him from Ayr United because I used to live in Ayr. I’d like to have taken him to Motherwell when I was there but he went to Hearts. He will be a real loss to Hearts if he isn’t included. Sutton is a real handful but he hasn’t played much.
“He has a tremendous attitude and it’s surprising he isn’t involved if he’s fit. Barr did really well at Falkirk but hasn’t been playing, although I hear he might play tonight. I think everyone looks at the Hearts squad as being a good group of high quality players, more so than most of the SPL clubs. If we are at our strongest we can compete but we don’t have strength in depth at Aberdeen.
“Hearts, with the resources they have, should be the third force in the league. We aren’t that far away. We can compete with anyone but we can lose to anyone on any day. That’s our problem. Aberdeen suffer from inconsistency.”
That erratic form manifested itself in the Highlands at the weekend as Inverness capitalised on weak Aberdeen defending to plunder a 2-1 home win.
Meanwhile, Hearts dispensed with Motherwell with a thoroughly professional display and arrive in the north east on the back of two successive home wins, scoring six goals and conceding none in the process. Out of the two clubs, they appear to be the one in form despite ongoing wage problems. They will also be mindful of a 3-0 victory over Aberdeen at Tynecastle back in August.
“Hearts got the breaks against us earlier this season. We hit the bar before they scored and played well for half an hour. Then they got a couple of soft goals from our point of view,” said Brown. “That game at Tynecastle was the most goals we’ve conceded in a game. We’ve played the Old Firm and Motherwell – the three top teams – and they didn’t score against us the way Hearts did. I was very disappointed with the defending there and I felt a 3-0 result wasn’t right. We conceded two terrible goals on Saturday, unforgivable goals from corner kicks. That’s unusual for us although I have to say Inverness are not a bad side. We are very inconsistent at the moment. We can be good and then we can be indifferent.”
Brown’s remedy for the inconsistency is simple: keep everyone fit and avoid needless suspensions. “Consistent selection with give you consistency of performance. We haven’t had that for one reason or another,” he continued. “We’ve got Peter Pawlett suspended at the moment. He’s one of our three [Scotland] Under-21 internationals who have all had red cards this season. They’ve all been the softest dismissals imaginable.
“Pawlett got two yellows against Hibs, both very soft. Fraser Fyvie was sent off for dissent to a linesman against St Mirren, and Ryan Jack got two yellows against Celtic. These boys are as good as any young players in the country but inexperience and some very harsh decisions has cost us because they’ve been unavailable.
“We’ve never managed to get the same team out in consecutive matches and that’s been frustrating.”
One shining light for Brown is the form of striker Scott Vernon. The 28-year-old has scored eight times in 19 appearances for Aberdeen this season and is, by some clear distance, the club’s top goalscorer.
“Vernon scored 16 goals last year in a struggling team and he’s got eight this year. He’s a good finisher with a good attitude,” explained Brown. “Rory Fallon only has a couple of goals so far, although he’s played well and been a threat. Darren Mackie is our other striker and he always seems to do well against Hearts.”