Hearts could field their youngest side in almost nine years tomorrow as they prepare to face “a team of experienced professionals” in high-flying Inverness.
A hamstring injury sustained by the squad’s old head, Ryan Stevenson, has left Dylan McGowan and Jamie Hamill as the only outfield players over the age of 21 available to manager Gary Locke for a gruelling run of nine games over the next six weeks.
The probable starting XI for tomorrow’s visit of second-place Caley Thistle, displayed in the Evening News Kick Off pull-out inside, has an average age of just over 21 years.
It will be the most youthful side Hearts have sent out since John Robertson had to field a team with an average of exactly 21 after his squad was ravaged by illness for, ironically, a home game against Inverness in March 2005. Deividas Cesnauskis, 23, and Dennis Wyness, 27, were the only players older than 22 to start that match as Hearts were swatted aside 2-0 by the Highlanders.
Injuries to key men Jason Holt and Stevenson have left Locke’s squad stretched to the limit and he now faces the prospect of having to throw 18-year-olds like Sam Nicholson and Adam King more prominently into the mix to help see the team through the festive fixtures.
“At the start of the season we had 16 professionals along with the groundstaff boys,” the manager explained. “We’re now down to 12 outfield professionals and two keepers, and the rest of the groundstaff boys have been involved with the team anyway. It’s certainly testing us but as I have said all season there is no point making excuses.
“It’s a problem I thought we might always face and now we just need to deal with it.”
Locke says the club are unlikely to make any attempt to ask the authorities to rethink Hearts’ signing ban in an effort to ease the pressure being placed on his depleted squad.
“We’ve already done that,” he said. “Trevor Birch [BDO administrator] was through at the start of the season and said we had such a paper-thin squad they needed to try and give us a bit of help.
“But we are in the situation we are in because of the way the club has been run the past few years. And I have said all along there’s no point making excuses.
“We are in administration, we are not allowed to sign any players, we are where we are. The most important thing is we still have a club. We just need to crack on.”
Locke’s side have lost 11 goals in back-to-back defeats to in-form sides Celtic and Dundee United and tomorrow they welcome an Inverness side unbeaten in six games and three points clear in second place with a game in hand over all their rivals.
“They are second top of the league and flying,” said Locke. “Every single player in their team is an experienced professional. But it’s a game we’re looking forward to. It’ll be a tough game.”