The revelation from Gary Locke last week that he will be able to bring in new players in the summer was perhaps the most positive news to come out of Hearts in recent months.
Assuming the Tynecastle club are able to ride out their off-field problems until the end of the season and their signing restrictions are lifted, this summer has to be viewed as a fresh start. It is an opportunity to refresh and reinvent themselves and put right the decisions which led them to financial turmoil, an over-reliance on talented but unproven kids and, subsequently, the bottom six.
Having seen the quality of the squad decline significantly over the past year, to the point where Hearts have only been spared a relegation battle by the haplessness of Dundee, the prospect of going into next season with an even weaker pool was an uncomfortable one for many Hearts supporters.
All things being equal, however, it looks like the manager may just have the chance to ensure that isn’t the case. It’s an opportunity he must make the most of. The probable exit of Marius Zaliukas and/or Andy Webster won’t fill Locke with delight, but aside from the two inspirational centre-backs, there are no players running out of contract who Hearts can’t cope without, assuming adequate replacements are found. Clearing the decks and starting afresh is something which should be welcomed if, as seems the case, there is the scope to do so. Finding the right new faces to augment a depleted, beleaguered and – Saturday aside – impotent squad will be a massive test of Locke’s credentials, though. With a vastly-reduced budget compared to some of his predecessors, he will have to earn his corn the way managers such as Steve Lomas, Kenny Shiels, Terry Butcher, Stuart McCall and Derek Adams have done at burgeoning smaller clubs.
If he is allowed to bring in, say, three or four players of his own choice, he needs to make sure every one of them has the ability and, just as importantly, the mentality to bring something to the party. Ideally, that something would be vibrancy, pace and goal threat, three commodities Hearts have been all too lacking in through recent seasons. For all that the Gorgie club have generally been top-six regulars until this term, any success they have had since the start of the 2008/09 campaign has been based predominantly on a solid defence and the goals of instrumental midfielders like Rudi Skacel and Bruno Aguiar.
The balance of the squad has been wrong for some time now, with plenty good, solid, dependable defensive-minded players and not enough match-winners. Flair football has been rare since the 2005/06 campaign, while Mark De Vries and Andrius Velicka have been the only prolific forwards to operate out of Tynecastle in the last ten years.
If indeed Locke is granted the opportunity to delve into the transfer market, he should make strengthening the attacking unit of the team his priority. If Hearts were to enter next season with exactly the same batch of attacking and creative players currently at their disposal, a top-six finish would remain an unlikely target. They have decent forwards and wingers, but, in SPL terms, Hearts currently have nothing exceptional in the front area of their team. For instance, they have no strikers, creative midfielders or wingers of the calibre of Johnny Russell, Niall McGinn, Leigh Griffiths, Billy McKay, Paul Heffernan, Andrew Shinnie, Gary Mackay-Steven, Richard Brittain, Nicky Law and Henrik Ojamaa.
All of these players were cleverly sourced by their respective clubs, but most would currently be out of Hearts’ price range. Law, for example, has already been enquired about by Hearts but, unsurprisingly, is set for a lucrative move to the Championship or Rangers.
Hearts instead need to focus on unearthing their own gems to augment their burgeoning batch of youngsters. As he bids to bring the thunder back to Tynecastle and make Hearts, who have been one of the limpest away teams in the country over the past two seasons, a more dangerous and dynamic counter-attacking team on the road, the manager product should be looking to find a 20-goal-a-season striker who is capable of spearheading the attack on his own if need be; a creative midfielder who can take the pressure off the talented but unproven Jason Holt; and a couple of effective wide players with pace and an end product.
It might seem like a tough ask to find such players on a tight budget, but it can be done. Motherwell plucked Law, a raw young midfielder, from Rotherham for relative peanuts. Inverness did likewise when they landed McKay after he’d been released by Northampton. James Dayton, the Kilmarnock winger currently being touted – albeit fancifully – for an England call-up by his manager, Kenny Shiels, was recruited from Glenn Hoddle’s Football Academy, which is basically a last-chance saloon for rejected footballers. Dundee United, meanwhile, have prospered in recent seasons by plucking players like Mackay-Steven, Morgaro Gomis and Danny Swanson from the SFL and giving them a chance to flourish.
There are plenty young, cheap, hungry players out there who can do a good job in the SPL. It’s just a case of finding them, hoping they have the mentality to cope with playing for Hearts, and then moulding them into a cohesive, balanced unit.
Defensively, Hearts are unlikely to be as sure-footed any time soon as they were with internationalists like Zaliukas and Webster at centre-back, but if one of them, or Danny Wilson, can be retained alongside Jamie Hamill to help the likes of Fraser Mullen, Kevin McHattie, Brad McKay and Dylan McGowan progress, then they should be reasonably strong at the back.
Even then, with expectations having to be lowered in tandem with reduced expenditure, a few erratic defensive displays will be forgiven if Locke can outdo most of his recent predecessors and find a way of making Hearts at least as vibrant and potent as many of their less-illustrious SPL rivals.
Assuming the goalposts aren’t shifted over the next month or so, the rookie manager has the chance to inject the hitherto functional Tynecastle side with some much-needed verve.