A huge smile etches itself across Gary Locke’s face as he ponders team selection for tomorrow’s League Cup semi-final.
For the first time this season, the Hearts manager has a dilemma over which strikers to play and is enjoying the novelty.
Paul McCallum is his first signing, ten months after being appointed manager at Tynecastle. The 20-year-old trained at Riccarton yesterday after agreeing a six-month loan from West Ham United. He is in the squad to face Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Easter Road tomorrow. As is Ryan Stevenson, who is free from suspension.
Problem is, Hearts have won their last two games with teenagers Callum Paterson and Dale Carrick in attack. Paterson scored a goal in each of the victories over Ross County and St Mirren. Carrick scored in the recent 3-3 draw with St Johnstone and earned the penalty from which Jamie Hamill scored the winning goal against St Mirren.
Solving Locke’s conundrum is clearly going to be difficult, but it’s a problem he welcomes wholeheartedly. “I have got a selection headache this weekend and it’s a great problem to have. I’m delighted with that,” he said.
“As a manager, you want competition for places. And this weekend, we’ve got that for the first time.
“It’s not just numbers, either, but the fact that we’ve won two matches on the trot. The team have been excellent for the last month, probably. I’m certainly pleased that we’re playing so well going into a huge game.”
McCallum is the name on supporters’ lips following his arrival from West Ham on Thursday evening. He is a tall, athletic young forward with a decent goalscoring rate of ten goals in 24 matches from previous loan spells at Torquay United, AFC Wimbledon and Aldershot Town.
“You’ll see him for yourselves but he gives us something different,” said Locke. “We started the season without any real recognised first-team strikers. I spoke to a lot of people I respect in the game and Paul comes with high recommendations from them. He’s big, he’s got a goal in him, good with both feet and hopefully he can hit the ground running.
“There is a temptation to throw him straight in on Sunday but the team is going really well. Myself, Billy [Brown] and the backroom team will look at the next couple of days’ training and hopefully pick a team capable of getting us to the final.”
Locke will gauge McCallum’s fitness levels before taking a final decision on whether he should play from the start against Inverness. The likelihood is that he will begin on the substitutes’ bench with Stevenson restored to the team to add experience at Carrick’s expense.
“Paul has been playing,” continued Locke. “He’s been a regular with the West Ham reserves, so there is no problem with his fitness. That’s important when you’re bringing in any player at this time of the season, that they’re ready to go. From speaking to Paul, he’s raring to go.
‘The deal was late in the day and we had a list of players we would have liked to bring in. But he was the one. Everybody could see that we are lacking in the striking department; Paul can help in that area, so we’re delighted to bring him in. He has scored goals everywhere he’s been on loan, which obviously helps for a striker.
‘That was one of the things that impressed. You look at a player’s background, look at how he’s done for other clubs. Paul has been on loan a couple of times and, no matter where it’s been, he’s found the net. Obviously that is one thing we’ve been lacking for most of the season, someone to get us a few goals. We hope it works.”
A similar move exactly 12 months ago saw Hearts recruit Michael Ngoo on loan from Liverpool two days before a League Cup semi-final with Inverness at Easter Road. The Englishman scored on his debut that day. The omens for McCallum are good, although he is a different type of player to Ngoo. “What Michael did in the semi-final does play on your mind, definitely,” admitted Locke. “The good thing is that, while we haven’t scored enough goals this season, we got a couple the other night, a couple at the weekend and three at St Johnstone.
“The last couple of weeks have been better in that respect. It’s great just to have a dilemma in that now, rather than the team picking itself, I’ve got decisions to make.”
One decision Locke won’t be able to make is whether to deploy Rudi Skacel. Hearts’ application to register the Czech midfielder in place of goalkeeping coach Alan Combe was rejected by the Scottish Professional Football League on Thursday.
Skacel continued training at Riccarton yesterday but it is unknown whether he will wait for an opening to join Hearts for a third time. As things stand, he would need a first-team regular to leave or for the club to exit administration before the SPFL would let him sign.
“I wouldn’t say their decision was a surprise but I’m obviously disappointed about it,” said Locke. “We were told that if you get a player out, you get a player in. That’s what we tried to do. I’m more disappointed for Rudi himself because all the lad wants to do is play.
“He’s been denied that opportunity, which is the most disappointing thing. He’s here training but I’ll have to speak to him. We talked after we got the decision, and he was as disappointed as me. He wants to play for Hearts.”
According to Locke, Skacel is willing to play for Hearts without taking a wage from the club. “It’s not breaking the bank or anything, he’s going to come here and play for virtually nothing. He’s been denied that chance. I’m really more disappointed for him than myself. The lad is a footballer, all he wants to do is play – and play for Hearts.
“The SPFL gave us an explanation about Alan Combe not being on a team sheet [this season], but Alan has been injured for most of the season. When he came back from injury, I’ve got three keepers who are fit and ahead of him. That’s the reason he’s not been on the team sheet, because there are two other keepers pushing Jamie MacDonald ahead of him. That’s the reason they’ve given us. It’s one we have to accept.”
The future of MacDonald was never in question during this transfer window despite a cheeky £20,000 offer from the English League One club Oldham Athletic. Locke did hold a telephone conversation with Lee Johnson, the Olham manager and former Hearts midfielder, about the goalkeeper. However, there was little chance of administrators at Tynecastle agreeing to sell one of their biggest assets on the cheap.
“To be fair, I spoke to Lee Johnson, who I like and respect a lot. He phoned and said they were interested in Jamie,” explained Locke. “They’re certainly not going to get him for that money.
“I think clubs do look at Hearts and see that we’re in a vulnerable position, there’s no doubt about that. Teams might think they can get our best players on the cheap. But we’ve shown with both Ryan [Stevenson] and Jamie that they’re going to have to put in a reasonable offer if they’re going to entice our players away.
“The most pleasing thing from my point of view is that the players want to be here, they don’t want to go anywhere. As a manager, I’m delighted about that.”
Having a squad united and motivated for the cause is key to Locke’s chances of guiding Hearts to another League Cup final. Last season’s doubled as his managerial debut, for he was confirmed as John McGlynn’s permanent replacement just 24 hours before the final. Losing 3-2 to St Mirren at Hampden Park is a memory that is difficult to shake off.
“The most abiding feeling is disappointment at losing, and there was disappointment because John McGlynn had been the man who took us there. He should have been the man to lead us out at Hampden. Unfortunately, he was denied that opportunity. If we had won the Cup that day, it would have been all about John, because he was the man who got us there.”
The intervening ten months have required every ounce of resolve Locke could muster. Hearts have entered administration, been deducted 15 points and are now favourites to be relegated from the Scottish Premiership. Their manager has been through the proverbial mill.
“I’m certainly looking older. I’m spending a lot more money on anti-wrinkle cream,” he laughed. “It’s for other people to comment on how I might have improved. It’s certainly been a difficult period, I’m not kidding myself on about that. Hopefully the things I’ve had to deal with here will stand me in good stead to be a better coach, a better manager in the future.
“Games like tomorrow are great. We’ve had a few lows this season but the young players have been nothing short of incredible and they thoroughly deserve to be in a semi-final. Maybe it’s not quite so daunting now because of the way our form has turned around. But Inverness are still strong favourites, they’ve beaten us twice, they’ve got a really strong side still having a fantastic season.
“Having said that, if we play like we have done over the last two games, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”