LEGEND status awaits Hearts’ squad of teenagers and academy graduates if they can retain the club’s place in the new Scottish Premiership. That is the view of manager Gary Locke ahead of Sunday’s season-opening trip to St Johnstone, where his team begin the campaign bottom of the league and minus 15 points for entering administration.
Survival is the only objective for Locke. He must harness a threadbare group of players dominated by inexperienced youngsters to pull off the unthinkable. He describes the idea of Hearts overhauling their deficit as a miracle and likens the prospect to winning silverware.
The stakes are high, but the manager’s approach is an emphatic “bring it on”. Should the likes of Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker, Jason Holt and their colleagues complete their task successfully, Locke believes their names will forever be inscribed in Tynecastle folklore.
“If they do really well and we manage to pull off this miracle, then they become icons here. They become legends,” he told the Evening News. “If we do survive, I see it as being just as important as any cup win. It would be just as good as winning a trophy, without a shadow of a doubt. We’re 15 points adrift without kicking a ball and any player will tell you 15 points is a big gap.
“I’ve told the players it’s a great challenge. In football you get ups and downs all the time, but I see this as a fantastic challenge for us all. I get the feeling the players are looking at it that way as well. Every game from the start of the season till the end is going to mean something. Every point will be so precious. That’s a good thing from my point of view. Every match we play is going to be huge and it looks like we’re going to get huge backing from the fans wherever we go. I think that will play a big part in spurring the team on.
“We will be [relegation favourites]. You saw last year that Dundee did fantastically well at the end of the season and they won about three or four games on the trot and it still didn’t get them out of the trouble they were in. No-one at Heart of Midlothian is kidding themselves on, they know how big an ask it’s going to be. We’re all up for the challenge, the fans are up for the challenge and everyone behind the scenes at the club is up for it. If we have everyone pulling in the right direction, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
Imparting his thoughts on Hearts’ predicament to players is a key part of Locke’s job, particularly during the week building up to this most crucial of seasons. That said, he is mindful not to overburden the youngsters under his command.
“The boys all know what’s at stake here. They don’t need me telling them every single day,” he continued. “They read the papers, they meet fans during the week and the support we’ve had has been unbelievable. We just hope we can repay these people because they’ve backed the club for years now. The stuff they’ve done off the pitch over the last couple of years to help Hearts survive has been incredible. If we can stay in the league, it would be for them.”
After the assignment in Perth – against a St Johnstone side which only returned from European duty in Belarus early this morning – Hearts welcome Hibs to Tynecastle for an Edinburgh derby next weekend. That high-octane fixture is followed by a trip to Maryhill to take on newly-promoted Partick Thistle.
“It’s important we try to get victories early doors and I see that hunger and desire about the squad,” said Locke. “If we don’t get off to a good start, we can’t let the heads go down. We just have to keep plugging away. With this group of players we have a chance if we can keep them all fit and available. We have young boys there but I think a lot of them have old heads on young shoulders. I’ve certainly got no qualms about them, they all just love playing football.”
Defender Kevin McHattie remains Hearts’ only injury doubt ahead of the weekend due to a hamstring complaint. He will be assessed by medical staff tomorrow before a final decision is taken on his availability.
Should the injury rule him out, Locke would appear to face a straight choice between moving captain Danny Wilson from central defence to left-back or risking 17-year-old Jordan McGhee in a position he has occupied many times at youth level.
Gary Naysmith would be a natural deputy for McHattie but, whilst he continues training with Hearts, he cannot sign due to a registration embargo. Andy Webster has also returned to Riccarton to maintain his fitness despite his Hearts contract expiring at the end of last season.
The centre-back is in the Scotland squad to face England at Wembley later this month and Locke is happy to let him train with his former colleagues.
“Andy is just in with us to get himself fit. He trained with Kilmarnock for a few weeks and nothing happened there. He is obviously in the Scotland squad for the game against England in a couple of weeks so he needs to train and it’s good having him around.”