Three years since he retired from playing, Stevie Crawford still likes a top corner. Aged 40, the celebrations are a little more modest these days, but the strikers at Hearts are learning from watching their new assistant coach in action. His finishing at training has created quite an impression.
Whilst head coach Robbie Neilson marshals defenders, Crawford is imparting his goalscoring wisdom at the other end of the training pitch. Many supporters feel Hearts should have employed a strikers’ coach years ago. John Robertson was the obvious candidate whilst working for free last season, but the appointment never materialised. Now they finally have someone able to fill that role.
The results of Crawford’s work are already beginning to bear fruit just weeks after he swapped Falkirk for Hearts. Dale Carrick, Gary Oliver, James Keatings and Osman Sow have shown notable dynamism in attack during pre-season matches. Their movement is intelligent and deliberate and is creating openings, with Soufian El Hassnaoui to join the group once he recovers fully from groin surgery.
Those five are able to watch and learn while Crawford, right, demonstrates the finishing prowess which earned him 25 Scotland caps. As the net ripples during a training game, he invariably doesn’t react. There is just a look. He has seen it and done it as a player in both Scotland and England, but a natural striker always appreciates the buzz of scoring a goal.
“He’s got great movement, even now,” said Carrick. “He shows us during games at training that he’s still got it. He likes to show us how to score. He tries to get up front and bang goals in. He always loves a top corner and he’s not afraid to tell everyone about it. When he scores, he just sort of looks at you, as if to say ‘try that’.”
No cartwheels or anything? “Nah. I don’t think that would be good for him.”
Last year, Carrick and Oliver had nobody coaching their specialist role. Nor did they even have a role model to learn from as Hearts went through the season with a threadbare squad full of young academy graduates. There was no experienced figurehead to lead the attack. The closest thing was Ryan Stevenson, a converted midfielder who has since departed for Partick Thistle.
The arrival of Robbie Neilson as head coach and Craig Levein as director of football preceded eight new signings. Perhaps time will show that Crawford, plucked from his role as Falkirk’s No.2 to assist Neilson, will be one of the most significant. “He helps you with the right movements to make,” explained Carrick. “He makes you think more about where you are on the pitch and how to lose defenders, so you have that split-second dash and you’re in with a chance. Stevie’s been talking me through the right runs to make and showing me the wee trigger points to get on the ball. Off the ball, he teaches you to make space for other players. The trigger points he’s been telling us about are the things that you see happening in front of you.
“That’s when you start making a move. Then you make a quick move, either away from the ball or in towards the ball. That helps you get the right body position to then get away. We’ve been working with him for five weeks now and I’m taking a lot on board. I’m learning more about movement and building relationships with the new strikers. Everything has been very positive and I’m glad I’ve got the chance to work with Stevie.”
Each of the five forwards in Neilson’s squad will need every advantage they can get this season. Although Hearts have been relegated to the Scottish Championship, they emerged from administration last month and have assembled a much stronger squad. The summer recruitment drive added experience and three of the eight signings are attackers – Keatings, Sow and El Hassnaoui. That means Carrick and Oliver face a fight to get game time.
“If you get a chance, you need to keep the jersey. You need to work hard every single day to make sure you keep the jersey for the next game,” said Carrick, who finished last season in top form with five goals in his final nine appearances. Neilson stated he will send some young players on loan, but Carrick is focused only on playing for Hearts. “I don’t know what’s happening. I’m just trying to work hard and try to get a place in the starting line-up. I’ve got nothing like [going on loan] in mind. I just want to try to get into the team at Hearts. The manager has just told me to keep working hard and try to pick things up from Stevie.
“He’s got loads of experience and he’s trying to pass that on to us. I’m trying to pick up everything I can from him so I can put it into my own game and put it into practice during matches. There’s five strikers now so it will be a good challenge for everybody. I felt positive at the end of last season so it was just a case of trying to continue that kind of form this season and get more goals.”