At this point last year, Danny Swanson was a frustrated bit-part player at Hearts struggling to command regular game time in his favoured position.
By the time his season-long contract was brought to a premature end at the start of February, the former Dundee United and Peterborough player had managed just five starts and four substitute appearances in five months with the club.
Swanson’s exit barely registered as a footnote on an eventful transfer deadline-day at Hearts which was significantly more notable for the departures of Osman Sow, Morgaro Gomis and Billy King. Few could have envisaged at that point that nine months down the line he would return to Tynecastle as a swashbuckling, assist-making, goal-scoring presence in a St Johnstone side once again pushing for a European place.
Swanson rocks up in Gorgie on Saturday as his team’s talisman, having rediscovered his mojo under Saints manager Tommy Wright. He is philosophical when analysing his time at Hearts, where he was predominantly used as a central midfielder as the likes of Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson, Billy King and Dario Zanatta were preferred by head coach Robbie Neilson in his favoured position on the wing.
“I feel wingers like myself need runs of games because it’s very difficult to come in and out of the team and play well,” Swanson said. “On my side of the coin, I didn’t do enough. I don’t think I was poor but I certainly didn’t set the heather on fire. I went there to play out wide, but I played more in a central midfield role. That’s not my position and I found it hard to nail down a place. Robbie was straight up with me at the end – he told me Dario Zanatta was ahead of me for a place out wide.
“I found that a bit puzzling because he’s a young kid who hadn’t really played at that level, but that was his decision and that was my cue basically to get on my way. Robbie made his decision and I’ve got to respect that. There are a lot of good players at Hearts, and they’re a good team. I was disappointed it didn’t work out but it’s worked out well for me in the end because I’ve come back to St Johnstone and done well.”
Swanson’s move to Hearts 14 months ago raised eyebrows from the outset because he is renowned in Edinburgh as a Hibs supporter. He insists this wasn’t a factor in his time at Tynecastle failing to go to plan. “Everybody knew I was a Hibs fan but I was absolutely delighted to sign for Hearts,” he said. “I knew when I went to Hearts that being a Hibs fan could have gone against me, but the fans were absolutely brilliant with me. I never had any negative feedback from them. I’ve nothing bad to say about Hearts – it’s an unbelievable club and I’ve still got friends there. I got on well with the likes of Sam Nicholson, Jamie Walker and Callum Paterson and still speak to them now. Things just didn’t work out. I’ve heard it said that I wasn’t trying hard enough but that’s not true. I just couldn’t get a run of games. It was just one of those things that didn’t work out for me.”
Some observers, notably former Hearts captain Michael Stewart, have suggested director of football Craig Levein has a strong influence on Neilson’s team selections. Swanson is able to laugh off any such notion. After all, Levein, upon calling Swanson up for Scotland in 2011, described his former Dundee United charge as “without doubt the most talented player I have worked with.”
“I wish Craig Levein did pick the team because I’d have been in it,” Swanson joked. “Robbie’s his own man – he works hard, to be fair to him. Craig probably had a say in me going there in the first place, but I don’t believe for a minute that he has an influence over picking the team. There’ll always be a mutual respect between me and Craig. He gave me my chance at Dundee United and I’ll always owe him for that. I spoke to him when I was injured in the last game against Hearts at McDiarmid Park. We just spoke away as friends.”
Swanson’s current form at St Johnstone is up there with anything he has produced in his career. He has nine goals to his name already this season, albeit six were penalties. Two of his goals came as he produced a man-of-the-match display in a 3-2 victory over Hearts in a Betfred Cup tie at McDiarmid Park in August. He has maintained an impressive level of performance ever since. “My form at the moment is very similar to the Scottish Cup final year at Dundee United [2009/10], when I was consistently playing well, and my second year at Peterborough [2013/14] when we won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and got to the semi-final of the play-offs.
I’m coming in off the left wing, getting chances and getting shots off in every game. I’m on a good scoring run but I’m also enjoying making assists because that’s something I wanted to add to my game. I’m a bit more experienced and I feel like I’m getting better every week.”
Much of Swanson’s resurgence is down to the influence of the highly-regarded Wright. “The manager just lets me go and enjoy myself and play, and that’s how to get the best out of me,” said Swanson. “He just lets me get on with it and tells me to go and pick up pockets of space, wherever I feel I can get joy. I have to work hard as well, which I’m not afraid to do, but he is a bit more lenient towards me on that [the defensive] side because we’ve got boys in our side who will do all that defensive dog work if I can’t get back in time.
“In this league, you can probably get away with being an attacking player who isn’t quite as focused on the defensive side, but you still need to rely on other players to do their jobs. We’ve got a perfect balance. We’ve got some dogs in our midfield with really good legs and that helps players like me. Tommy works his team around that.”
Wright’s ability to rehabilitate players who have lost their way in Edinburgh is further highlighted by the positive impact of Liam Craig and David Wotherspoon, whose careers were both in danger of stagnating at Hibs. The Perth club’s uncanny ability to squeeze the most out of their employees has manifested itself in five consecutive top-six finishes in the Premiership – three of those under Wright. They are well on course for another lofty position as one of four teams separated by a point in the battle for second place. St Johnstone’s name stands out as the least illustrious by some distance when set against the three clubs they are jousting with – Rangers, Aberdeen and Hearts.
“The ability to punch above our weight probably comes from the manager,” said Swanson, who previously had a spell at Saints in the second half of the 2014/15 season. “He knows how to get the best out of his players. Technically, we’re not the best team in the league but we all know our jobs.
“The manager’s very good with his words and how he comes across. He can lose the rag at times, but one of the first things I noticed about him is that his team-talks are very motivational. He’s a very good talker and has a clear plan of what he wants to do, which I thinks helps us massively. We don’t really change the way we play. Teams know how we play but we won’t really change it except for maybe when we play Celtic.We’re a confident team.
“Financially we’re not on the same level to Hearts, Rangers and Aberdeen, but on the park I don’t think there’s much of a difference. They’re all bigger clubs than us, but on the park it’s a different story. We hold our own and always seem to well at places like Tynecastle. I don’t think there’s much of a difference between any teams in the Premiership apart from Celtic. Rangers will take a few years to get back to where they were. Even on Saturday we got beat by Partick Thistle which just shows that anybody can beat anybody. There’s not much between any teams in this league so usually comes down to who wants it most on any given day.
“We’ve not really discussed finishing second. Our aim is to finish in the top six, which we’ve done in the past few seasons. I think we’ll definitely be up there competing at the top end of the league, but it’s just a matter of getting consistency. Our finance isn’t as good as the other clubs, so our squad isn’t as big but it’s still one of the best squads the club has had in years. We’ll be there and thereabouts but finishing second would be a big ask for us.”
Saints are unbeaten in their last five against Hearts, with Swanson featuring in three of those matches. The on-song attacker insists he will not be trying to rub anyone’s nose in it when he returns to Tynecastle for Saturday’s Premiership clash between two sides separated only by goal difference.
“I don’t feel I’ve got a point to prove to anybody” said Swanson. “Maybe in England, I’d feel I have a point to prove, but I’ve done well up here. I just go out and enjoy every game, but as an Edinburgh boy who supports Hibs, I always enjoy the Hibs and Hearts games that bit more.”