FINAL decisions on new contracts will be made by the Hearts hierarchy this month, meaning a host of first-team players could be about to depart.
Out of contract this summer are captain Marius Zaliukas, Andy Webster, Darren Barr, Danny Grainger, Arvydas Novikovas, Gordon Smith, Dylan McGowan, Callum Tapping and Fraser Mullen. Many will be released to cut costs and ensure Hearts become financially self-sufficient for next season.
Grainger was told in January that Hearts were in no position to invoke the option of a one-year extension to his existing deal. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that he could yet be invited to stay, but that would depend on who else is retained and the budget available. Of the above list, expect Barr, Novikovas and Smith to go, although McGowan, Tapping and Mullen should get new deals. Those three are all young with future potential and by no means high earners. McGowan and Tapping both have contracts which carry the option of a further 12 months at Hearts’ discretion.
Zaliukas and Webster provide dilemmas for those who must balance books and maintain some semblance of an experienced squad. Webster’s salary of around £7000 per week means only Zaliukas earns more, yet the Scot is the most seasoned and reliable player in the Tynecastle squad. In the interests of having a role model to guide their plethora of youth academy graduates, it would seem Hearts must retain at least one of their two centre-backs.
There is no guarantee either will want to stay, of course. Zaliukas initially joined Hearts on loan from FBK Kaunas in 2006 and has sampled everything he could realistically have expected during a seven-year stay in Edinburgh. Lifting the Scottish Cup last May was the obvious pinnacle. At 29, he may decide it is time for pastures new once he recovers from the ankle ligament damage which ended his season prematurely in February. If any offer is made to the Lithuanian by Hearts, it will be on vastly reduced terms.
Webster is in his second spell at Tynecastle and will celebrate his 31st birthday later this month. He tasted English football only briefly with Wigan Athletic after an acrimonious exit from Gorgie in 2006. Another crack south of the Border would appeal to him if he becomes a free agent. A contract offer from Hearts is likely, although again it will be for a far lower salary to fit in with a sustainable wage bill. Webster would then be obliged to weigh up his options.
Those still under contract and not fresh out of the Riccarton youth dressing room include goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, defender Jamie Hamill, midfielders Ryan Stevenson, Scott Robinson and Mehdi Taouil plus striker John Sutton. They will form the spine of next season’s side alongside any new recruits who arrive during the summer. Hearts hope to sign new players to supplement their squad but must first wait until the Scottish Premier League lift restrictions preventing them signing anyone over the age of 21.
Thereafter, the rest of the squad is made up of youngsters – all talented in their own right but not yet proficient in raking the muck for points in the SPL. This season proves that very problem, with Hearts sitting 11th in the table approaching the split, although the benefit of experience should bring an improvement next year.
Rather than rely on kids being older and wiser, Tynecastle officials want to bring in some new faces if possible. Danny Wilson is a prime target having impressed since joining on loan from Liverpool in January. A permanent deal for the 21-year-old Scotland internationalist is a real possibility. His Anfield contract expires this summer and he will not be offered an extension.
Hearts could not offer anything like the salary he earns in England but the player has already stated his priority is to play regularly, which he is guaranteed to do in Scotland. He told the Evening News just a few days ago that he would happily remain in Edinburgh if an agreement can be reached.
Michael Ngoo, who followed Wilson from Liverpool to Hearts on loan, will return south at the end of the season. He still has another year’s contract on Merseyside and has ambitions of making an impact in the English Premier League. Like Wilson, he moved on loan to get game time but with the primary aim of impressing the Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers ahead of next season.