The primary task facing Hearts’ next head coach or manager will be to galvanise a group of players who have badly lost their way amid the malaise that has gripped the club over the past eight months.
Since Robbie Neilson left for MK Dons at the end of November, no player – old or young, new or long-serving, proven or promising – has been able to do themselves justice on the pitch over a remotely sustained period, as form, confidence and, in some cases, application levels, have nosedived and criticism has duly intensified.
Those who shone or at least performed to a credible standard under Neilson generally regressed or – at best – stagnated during Ian Cathro’s reign. Of the three January signings who remain at the club – Esmael Goncalves, Aaron Hughes and Malaury Martin – none can be deemed to have performed anywhere near their best in Hearts colours. The seven summer recruits are similarly in danger of withering amid the negativity unless the club can quickly get themselves back on an even keel and ease the tension that has made both watching and playing for Hearts a demoralising experience of late.
The arrival of a new figurehead should automatically have the effect of lifting the morale of everyone at the club, especially if the chosen candidate is of the calibre of Steve McClaren or the popularity of Paulo Sergio. Once the new man is in the door – the selection process is currently ongoing – he must set about ensuring repairing battered confidence and increasing motivation levels among a group of players who, when operating collectively at their best, should be strong enough to ease into the top six and then compete for a Europa League place.
Reinforcements are still required in certain areas, notably in the form of a senior goalkeeper and a wide player, although the feeling persists that there is plenty scope for the current squad to flourish if the new man in charge can generate a more harmonious environment in his early weeks and months in charge and subsequently make playing for Hearts an enjoyable experience once more.
Jack Hamilton has arguably suffered more than anyone amid the team’s post-Neilson downturn. Aside from some occasional shaky moments, which generally didn’t cost his team goals, the Scotland squad man looked comfortable enough in the early part of last season after being pitched in as his team’s No.1 and showed enough, particularly in the form of his shot-stopping, to justify the notion that he is the most promising young Scottish goalkeeper around. Since the turn of the year, however, it has become painfully clear that the 23-year-old’s confidence has waned.
Being the last line of defence in one of the meekest Hearts teams this century has done him no favours and led to an increase in the number of goals for which he has been at fault. Being part of the Scotland squad at such a young age – as a goalkeeper, his best years are still likely to be five to ten years down the line – has merely intensified the scrutiny on his performances.
Starting the current season between the sticks with the No.13 on the back of his jersey will have done little to make him feel good about himself. Hamilton is in need of a manager who can help restore his belief levels while simultaneously ensuring he is operating behind a far more resilient team. As a player viewed as a future Scotland No.1, he is certainly worth persisting with.
In the short term, however, a more experienced goalkeeper is required to allow him some time out of the firing line to regroup.
Defence is the area of the squad currently requiring the least work. It remains to be seen if the new man will persist with the three-at-the-back approach latterly favoured by Cathro, but Christophe Berra and Hughes, if and when fully fit, should provide a solid and dependable foundation for the team at centre-back. John Souttar, 20, Jordan McGhee, 21, and Krystian Nowak, 23, are three ball-playing centre-backs whose flaws will be exposed in a struggling team but who also boast enough quality and potential to prosper in a more sure-footed side. Alex Petkov, the 18-year-old Bulgarian, is also highly regarded and knocking on the door.
Hearts are reasonably well off at right-back, with Michael Smith showing enough in his early games with the club to suggest he will be a solid if unspectacular replacement for the marauding Callum Paterson. Jamie Brandon, 19, and Liam Smith, 21, provide adequate back-up, while Connor Randall, the on-loan Liverpool player, can also play this role.
Left-back has been Hearts’ problem position for the past two years, and supporters – and, more importantly, the new boss – will be hoping that Ashley Smith-Brown is the solution. The on-loan Manchester City player boasts a decent pedigree, but, as a player still at the development phase of his career, the 21-year-old will require a competitive Hearts team in order to flourish. Rafal Grzelak has had an erratic start to his Hearts career. The new man at the helm will have to establish whether the powerful Pole is a left-back, a centre-back or a central midfielder. The fact he played regularly in Poland’s top flight last season suggests he should be a capable squad man if deployed correctly.
Central midfield is in reasonable order, but – depending on the impact Randall goes on to have – appears to lack genuine creativity. Prince Buaben is the underrated cog in central midfield who keeps things ticking over. While his team-mates value his contribution, he hasn’t always been universally appreciated by supporters. The Ghanaian’s future at the club has been the subject of doubt for much of the past year and he didn’t feature as much as he would have liked last season, particularly under Neilson. Under a manager who values his leadership and ball retention ability, the 29-year-old could yet rediscover the consistency of his first 18 months at Tynecastle and re-establish himself as a regular starter.
Arnaud Djoum is one of a few key players at Hearts who would benefit from strong and motivational management. The Cameroon internationalist is one of his club’s main men when in the zone, but he performed only sporadically last season. The 28-year-old harbours ambitions of moving up the food chain, but to do so, he will have to excel for Hearts in the upcoming season. This means more goals, more assists and more match-dominating performances are required.
Don Cowie was arguably the only Hearts player who ended last season with any credit. Although his effectiveness was understandably diminished amid the general malaise of the team, his commitment never wavered. In terms of his application, the 34-year-old is a manager’s dream. In more favourable circumstances, the energetic box-to-box veteran can play a key role in getting his team on the front foot, particularly at Tynecastle, where the crowd crave a high-tempo approach. Cowie, Djoum and Buaben would comprise a three-man midfield capable of helping Hearts towards the top six, although there is a feeling that they are missing someone in the mould of Scott Allan, or even Dylan McGeouch, to bring some stardust to the engine room.
For now, Hearts’ incoming head coach will have to hope that either Malaury Martin, once he adapts to the intensity of Scottish football, Randall, who has been billed as an attacking midfielder, or even Harry Cochrane, the highly-regarded 16-year-old playmaker, can step up and bring some flair to the midfield.
In Jamie Walker, Goncalves and Kyle Lafferty, the new manager will encounter three high-end Premiership attackers. The key with this trio, however, will be getting them all to operate at their best and in the correct roles. Walker and Goncalves both toiled in the second half of last season and both were dropped for the Premiership opener at Celtic Park on Saturday, but they remain the most creative players at Hearts on their day.
Cathro’s 3-4-3 formation didn’t do either any favours. The feeling persists that Goncalves should play up alongside Lafferty in a two-man attack, rather than in a withdrawn wide position. Walker can play wide or centrally, but, as long as the 24-year-old is not sold this month, the new boss must draw on his man-management skills to ensure that the talismanic attacker can cast aside thoughts of moving on and instead focus on taking his game to a new level in order to ensure he has a greater array of suitors when his contract expires in the new year. Walker, Goncalves and Lafferty boast the potential to cause serious damage if operating harmoniously in tandem and backed up by a strong midfield unit. Cole Stockton, Rory Currie and Conor Sammon currently provide the back-up in attack, although it is notable that teenager Lewis Moore is the only out-and-out winger on the books. Sam Nicholson and Billy King may have been prone to inconsistency, but there is no doubting that they gave the attack an exciting extra dimension which they don’t currently possess.
The recruitment of an effective wide player should be a priority. Second, of course, to sourcing a head coach with the motivational powers to get the best out of this able but beleaguered squad.