Dropping captains is becoming a habit at Hearts but the latest victim, Perry Kitchen, refuses to accept a bit-part role.
The American midfielder resolved to fight his way back into the starting line-up after being left on the substitutes’ bench for his club’s last two games.
The situation mirrors that of Kitchen’s predecessor as skipper, Alim Ozturk. The Turkish defender found himself dropped by former coach Robbie Neilson at the start of the season and lost the armband a few weeks later. He eventually left Hearts in January. Having only accepted the captaincy from Ozturk in September, Kitchen won’t give it or his first-team place up easily.
He was rested at Motherwell two weeks ago but his omission from the team continued when Hearts met Hibs in the Scottish Cup last weekend. Whether he remains on the bench tomorrow when Inverness Caledonian Thistle visit Tynecastle on league business could depend on Don Cowie’s recovery from sore ribs. Kitchen admits it is an unusual situation, especially after Ozturk’s rapid demotion, but is determined to remain a positive influence within the dressing room.
At any club, the captain generally plays when fit, particularly when that player is also a USA internationalist. The arrivals of Alex Tziolis and Malaury Martin in January provide Hearts head coach Ian Cathro with added strength in midfield alongside the experienced for Scotland internationalist Cowie. Kitchen has no intention of repeatedly kicking his heels on the sidelines, though.
“I have to respect the coaches’ decision and just continue working hard every day in training. Hopefully, that gets me back on the field,” said Kitchen in an exclusive Evening News interview. “It’s ultimately up to Ian and Austin [MacPhee, Cathro’s assistant] what they want to do and who they want to put on the field. It’s also up to me to do my best to make sure I’m there.
“Nobody is happy to sit on the bench. It’s a case of trusting the process, doing your best and hopefully that is recognised and rewarded. I’ve only been in this situation a couple of times as a professional. I was dropped once at DC United and then came back in. It’s obviously different with the national team.
“It’s not happened to me too often. It’s ultimately their decision and I’ll respect it. I’ll do what I can to get back on the field.”
Kitchen spoke to Cathro about the reasons behind his omission for both the Motherwell and Hibs matches. “We had a lot of games in a short period of time. The Motherwell game was our fifth game in 13 days. I talked to Ian about that and he thought it was best to give me a rest there,” explained the player.
“At the Hibs game I was a bit surprised but I respect the manager’s decision. He said that’s what they thought was the best team for the match. That was that. I’ll just keep looking forward and try to get better every day.”
Whether starter or substitute, Kitchen doesn’t view his responsibilities as club captain any differently. He will still be a vocal and encouraging influence in the dressing room before kick-off.
“Nothing changes for me. The reality is I was left out of one game to rest and then one game dropped. I’m still going to be a positive influence on the group and help be a leader for the team. Just because you’re not in the starting line-up doesn’t mean you have to take a back seat. It’s an interesting situation but everything stays the same for me.”
At the back of his mind is next Wednesday’s rematch with Hibs at Easter Road to see who reaches the Scottish Cup quarter-finals. It is sure to be a tense and dramatic night in Leith and Kitchen is desperate to be involved.
“Everybody in the dressing room wants to play in that game. It’s against our biggest rivals at their place so everyone has the same mentality. We all want to be on the field. I’m no different,” he said.
Inverness remain the priority for now as Cathro won’t allow his players to think any further ahead than tomorrow afternoon. The Highlanders are the Ladbrokes Premiership’s bottom club and sit three points adrift of second-bottom Hamilton.
Their last league win was way back on October 26 at Motherwell and they lost 5-1 on their previous visit to Tynecastle in August. Manager Richie Foran certainly doesn’t have his troubles to seek in his first season in charge. Inverness cannot be underestimated, however, as Hearts try to build on wins over Rangers and Motherwell in their last two games. The Edinburgh club still harbour ambitions of securing second place and must close a nine-point gap between themselves and Aberdeen to do so.
“We don’t look at the table, we know it’s not going to be an easy game,” said Kitchen. “Inverness are a team who will come here and make it tough for us to play. They’ll go into challenges and pressure us.”
Then there is the Tynecastle pitch to factor into the equation. The rutted surface may well suit the Inverness agenda, although Cathro explained in this newspaper yesterday how he plans to tweak his gameplan to combat it.
“To be honest, anything can happen at Tynecastle right now with the pitch,” admitted Kitchen. “It’s in a bad situation so we need to bring our ‘A’ game. It’s no secret the pitch is in horrible shape. It’s about finding a way to get a result, no matter what it takes. The ball will take bad bounces but that’s the case for both teams. It’s not ideal but it is what it is. I can’t say that I’ve been on many pitches as bad as that.”
He isn’t one to search for excuses and is acutely aware that he is now at the business end of his first full season in Scotland. If European football is to be achieved, Hearts must find a level of consistency to propel them forwards during vital upcoming games. The Scottish Cup is a welcome distraction for a club keen to achieve on both fronts.
“Look, it’s crunch time. There aren’t too many games to go,” stressed Kitchen. “We obviously have the Scottish Cup to focus on as well. We’re trying to maximise points from every league game we play.
“We’re three wins away from Aberdeen, we still play them twice before the season ends – once in the regular season and once after the split – so the opportunities are there. We need to try and get as close to second place as we can.”
Kitchen intends being back in central midfield long before that issue is settled. His fighting spirit should serve him well in the quest to prove he deserves a starting place.