FOR a team who have enjoyed as much relative success as Hearts over the past few years, the Tynecastle club seem curiously unable to shake off the almost perennial perception that they lack a cutting edge.
After Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at St Mirren, they have now gone seven games without a win – albeit two of those were against Liverpool – and have failed to score in four of their last five. Concern and frustration is increasing among fans and inevitably – as always seems to happen when Hearts fall into a rut – the manager is coming under pressure to play two up front.
John McGlynn, however, is merely the latest in a string of Hearts managers who have found themselves with a major attacking dilemma to resolve. Ever since Andrius Velicka left Edinburgh early in 2008, Hearts have been unable to find a truly reliable striker who guarantees a regular supply of goals.
The closest thing they’ve had to a prolific striker since the Lithuanian – who hit 19 goals in 49 outings – departed was midfielder Rudi Skacel, who scored an astonishing 25 goals in just 58 games during his second spell at the club.
Since the days of Velicka – and some would argue even since the golden 2005/06 season – Hearts have generally had to muddle through without a genuinely lethal strikeforce. That they have been able to do this with a fair degree of success is generally a credit to the managers. After Velicka was sold, Csaba Laszlo, for instance, was left with Christian Nade, Calum Elliot and Gary Glen as his three main strikers.
It summed up his desperation for an adequate spearhead that he spent much of his first season pining for the return from injury of the lesser-seen loan signing Mike Tullberg. With no strikers he could hang his hat on, Laszlo engineered a functional but effective system that cast midfielders Andrew Driver, Bruno Aguiar and Michael Stewart as the key men.
It was this trio that conjured up the creativity and goal threat that allowed Hearts to somehow scrape third place from a 2007/08 season that saw Adrian Mrowiec, Scott Robinson and Eggert Jonsson deployed in attack at various junctures. But Laszlo could power on no longer. With his calls for a new striker bringing the hapless David Witteveen where he would rather have had an Anthony Stokes or a Kevin Kyle or even Steven MacLean or Izale McLeod, the manager was soon shown the door.
Jim Jefferies, his replacement, was able to temporarily shake off the “lack of cutting edge” lament, but only as he was allowed the luxury of a proper delve into the transfer market. After initially being forced to try David Obua as an auxiliary centre-forward, he brought in established forwards such as Kyle and Stephen Elliott, while he also had the gift of Skacel bestowed upon him. Allied to this, Ryan Stevenson and David Templeton were blossoming in support roles. When Kyle got injured and Templeton lost form in the second half of season 2010/11, however, Hearts’ play became stale and they faded badly, to the point where Jefferies soon followed Laszlo out the door.
Enter Paulo Sergio. For much of the early part of his reign, Hearts were accused of being punchless again, with the wide players failing to inspire and John Sutton, one of Jefferies’ last signings, deemed unsuitable to Sergio’s style. Along with Skacel, Stevenson, primarily a midfielder, emerged as Hearts’ main goal threat before he left, and it was only when the bustling Craig Beattie arrived in January that Hearts really began to look a genuine attacking force again. Even then, Beattie’s appearances were all too fleeting and a total goal tally of 15 from 19 away games last term told the story of why Hearts, despite having arguably the third-strongest squad, finished fifth in the SPL. Without Skacel, one can only imagine last season would have been a whole lot less uplifting for the Hearts support.
And here we have McGlynn having to live out the reality of life without the talismanic Czech, for now at least. He has been left with one established striker in Sutton, while the departure of Templeton, the inspiration of Hearts’ only high points this season, has left Driver, still desperately trying to rediscover his pre-injury form, and the talented but erratic Arvydas Novikovas as his main wingers.
Dale Carrick, Gordon Smith and Jamie Walker are highly regarded, but can’t be expected to dramatically alter Hearts’ fortunes. The other two options for striking berths are Stevenson and Callum Paterson who were paired in attack at the weekend with limited success. However, had Paterson, who has played up front for the Under-19s, taken one of his first-half chances, it would have been deemed a success. Stevenson’s sluggishness can easily be attributed to the fact he had only played an hour of football this season before the trip to Paisley. He will come good in time and is sure to help ease the scoring burden.
Of course, while Sutton has so far struggled in the lone striker role at Hearts, it must be remembered that he scored 17 goals in one campaign for Motherwell only two seasons ago. He is not a dud, but the current set-up of the team is not getting the best out of him. In that same 2010/11 campaign, Stevenson scored seven for Hearts. Between him and Sutton – albeit playing for different teams – they scored 24 goals that season, so there is a potential starting point in terms of how McGlynn could try to get his attack firing. Of course, he also needs to get decent supply to those in the middle. If the current wide players can’t provide regular delivery, an alternative might be to move Mehdi Taouil out on to the flank and introduce either Robinson or Jason Holt to central midfield.
McGlynn can be a shrewd manager. One way or another he will eventually find a formula that works. However, recent history tells us that, without a midfield talisman to compensate for a shortage of attacking options, getting Hearts to fire can be a pretty tricky task.