TOP-SIX football and European qualification wouldn’t be possible at Hearts without the work of chief scout John Murray. Although players, coaching staff, director of football, owner and fans have all contributed greatly, Murray’s eye for a player underpins the entire operation, according to head coach Robbie Neilson.
A place in the top six is already secure ahead of tomorrow’s league match with St Johnstone yet Hearts continue to aim higher despite being the Premiership’s newly-promoted side. Reaching the qualifying rounds of the Europa League and a possible second-place finish are the reviewed aims of a club now constantly on the up. Since moving from director of football back to scouting two years ago, Murray has been a major catalyst in the success.
The Northern Irishman’s most recent recruit is Perry Kitchen, the USA international midfielder who signed a two-and-a-half-year contract last week. However, Murray’s network of contacts stretches worldwide. Players like the popular Brazilian Igor Rossi, Cameroon-born midfielder Arnaud Djoum and the recently departed Swede Osman Sow would not have been in Edinburgh without him.
Consequently, Hearts are thriving and still giving first-team opportunities to young Scottish talent like Liam Smith and Jordan McGhee. If they are over achieving in terms of league position in their first season back in the Premiership, Murray’s endeavours have played a huge part.
“That goes down to the scouting. John Murray is head first-team scout for me and has a lot of contacts in the game,” Neilson said. “He started off as a scout, did it for a number of years and then took over as director of football here. He’s come away from that now and he’s back doing first-team scouting for me.
“Our scouting network now stretches all over the world, except England because we can’t afford it. Everywhere else is viable for us. There are players in Scotland we like but generally it’s younger ones because, again, we can’t afford it. Players doing well in Scotland go to England and they go out of our market. We have to look everywhere. We have South American players, North American players, African players, guys from all over the world. We have to do that to keep things within the budget.
“John has been involved in just about every player coming in here. I’ll get emails, ‘Whatsapps’ and texts sent to me from agents. Craig Levein [director of football] is the same, and Stevie Crawford [assistant coach] gets things sent to him as well. We just send it all to John. It’s John’s role to sift through it all on ‘Wyscout’ and narrow it down.
“For every 50 players that are sent in, there’ll be one that could make the grade. John will get everything together and bring it to me. I’ll look at five or six, then we’ll go and watch these players live, meet them and take it from there. It takes a lot but it’s the only way we can do it.”
The process is reaping huge dividends. Owner Ann Budge is probably still counting through the notes from the more than £1 million Hearts took from China’s Henan Jianye for Sow. That was an unexpected move for a player whose contract only had a few months to run, but unexpected has been a theme of Hearts’ season.
So much have they exceeded beliefs that achieving their stated aim barely rated a mention. The 1-0 win over Partick Thistle two weeks ago ensured they would finish the campaign as a top-six club once again. That was the main target during pre-season. Hearts are back where they belong in the upper echelons of Scotland’s top flight but don’t expect ambitions to stop there.
“Everyone is looking at Europe and who is going to make the top six. We knew when we beat Inverness that was us in the top six and it was great,” continued Neilson. “The objective at the start of the season was to get the club secure and get top-six football. We’ve managed to do that but, when you do it so early, objectives change within the group and within the club. You want to go higher again.
“I expected to get top six. With the squad we’ve built here and the players we’ve got coming through the academy, I expected we’d be in the top six. If we didn’t finish in the top half, it would’ve been a poor season. Now it’s a case of trying to push on. European football would be great. To come up from the Championship and qualify for Europe is great for any team.”
That said, he could never have envisaged being even loosely in touch with the Premiership summit at this stage in the season. Hearts are nine points behind second-placed Aberdeen with a game in hand, and ten behind leaders Celtic. The final straight promises to be fraught with tension. It isn’t a situation Neilson ever imagined.
“That’s true. You aim for the top six and you’re looking at competing with St Johnstone, Dundee and Inverness. We’ve exceeded expectations because the players have worked extremely hard to get us there. Can we get even closer? I certainly think we have a chance to influence the title because we play Aberdeen and Celtic twice before the season ends.”
As well as the work of Murray, his coaching staff and players, Neilson pointed out that public support is another vital ingredient in Hearts’ revival. “The whole club has been great. The fan base has been phenomenal putting money into Foundation of Hearts. If we didn’t have that money, the club wouldn’t be sustainable. That side of it has been magnificent. It brings a whole togetherness to Hearts, as do things like the Save The Children sponsorship, the Big Hearts charity, Foundation of Hearts.
“The players buy into it as well. They know that, coming here, you’re part of a club and everyone is together. Not just in the dressing-room, but everywhere right down to the academy. Academy kids are here at Riccarton all the time.”
There will be no resting on laurels, though, and fans must take a similar attitude. “You can never say never in football so we need to keep working hard. We need to make sure the Foundation stays strong because that will be the lifeblood of the club for the foreseeable future. It’s important people don’t think: ‘We’ve done our bit, we can move on now’. The whole club has to keep building. I do believe there is a lot more to come from this football club.”
How much, exactly? “When you start a season, you want to win the league,” said Neilson. “You’re competing against teams with budgets ten times bigger than ours. Next season, if Rangers come up, their budget and Celtic’s budget will go up again. At the moment, Celtic’s budget is probably ten times bigger than ours. That might rise to 15, which makes it exceptionally hard. Aberdeen’s budget is several times more than us, and there’s Dundee United if they stay up.
“We have to be sustainable and the only way we’re going to be able to compete if everyone sticks together, fans support the Foundation and we try to produce good players and play good football.”