EVEN allowing for the surprise surrounding Ian Black’s imminent exit from Tynecastle, Hearts can’t afford to be distracted this evening. A slip now would seriously damage European ambitions. Win against Motherwell tonight and again on Sunday against St Johnstone and a Europa League qualifying place will virtually be safe.
Many Hearts players arrived for training at Riccarton yesterday morning unaware that Black’s future had been decided. The announcement that his contract will not be renewed this summer was unexpected, not least because of its timing. Three vital league fixtures and an all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final with Hibs offer a cliff-hanging climax to the season, and Black must now shoulder that pressure knowing he is surplus to requirements.
The 27-year-old has been imperious in midfield this season, was touted for Scotland recognition by manager Paulo Sergio, and is a serious contender for the club’s Player of the Year award.
The magnitude of the shock over his departure was highlighted by the fact that, around lunchtime yesterday, Black’s name was trending on Twitter. For those who don’t tweet, it basically means loads of folk were talking about him on the internet.
Whilst Sergio and others focused solely on preparations for Motherwell, it was left to first-team coach Gary Locke to do some eulogising in person. “Blackie’s had discussions with the board and they’ve both come to an agreement that he’s going to move at the end of the season,” he said.
“From a personal point of view, and talking on behalf of Paulo and the backroom staff, he’s been fantastic for us, probably close to being the club’s player of the year. We wish him all the best because he’s a fantastic lad, a fantastic professional and he’s played a huge part in the relative success we’ve had this season.”
Black’s comments so far on the matter indicated it was more the board’s decision than his own. “Everybody knows the club is looking to cut costs, and to do that we have to try and offload players,” continued Locke. “We’ve got a lot of players and the club spends a lot of money every month on salaries. It’s something we’re looking to reduce. That’s handled by different people, like John Murray, the director of football.
“From a coaching point of view, we’d like to try and keep some of our more experienced players. We’ve got a lot of talented young boys but I think you need experience round about them to bring them on. We’ll just have to wait and see what the summer brings.
“Next year we’re probably going to have to make a few changes and reduce the wages. I think that’s common knowledge. Come the summer, the people in charge of the club and the director of football will sort all that out.”
Interest in Black from English clubs is intensifying following the news that Hearts will not keep him on. Locke, who sampled English football with Bradford City, harbours no doubt over his ability to thrive south of the Border.
“I think he would be a revelation down there. I know he went down to Blackburn as a kid but I think now he’s 27, he’s at an age where he’s reaching his peak. Anybody who has seen him play this season would agree with me that he would go down there and do very well.
“His performances might have surprised people outwith the club but they certainly haven’t surprised me. I played against him and I knew the ability Ian had. I think, not just Ian, but the whole team has picked up over the last couple of months. We’ve played some good stuff and we have a really important game against Motherwell now. We’re coming off the back of a decent result on Saturday against a very good Dundee United side.”
With that, it was clear Locke wanted to concentrate on the task in hand. Motherwell were struggling for form before the weekend having won only two of their previous nine matches. Then came a 5-1 destruction of St Johnstone on Saturday which ensures they head to Edinburgh on an emotional high. That result, incidentally, also helped Hearts in their quest for Europe.
Only four points separate fourth-placed Dundee United, fifth-placed St Johnstone and Hearts in sixth as the season nears its conclusion. Europa League qualifying berths are the prize, although all three could mathematically still pip Motherwell to Scotland’s one remaining Champions League place.
“Motherwell are looking to clinch a Champions League place and we’re looking to get into Europe. It’s got the makings of a cracking game,” said Locke. “This is a huge game for the club and one that we need to try and win.
“Everything is so tight. St Johnstone, Motherwell and Dundee United are in there and it’s really difficult. We know we have two big games coming up and if we want to finish high up the league I think we have to win them. Then we have Celtic in our final game, which will again be difficult with them getting the SPL trophy that day.
“Motherwell are flying and they had a fantastic result at the weekend. For me, Stuart McCall and Kenny Black have been absolutely outstanding there this year considering the budget they’ve got. The way they’ve gone about their business has been nothing short of incredible and it’s all credit to them. We know we’re in for a tough one tonight.”