THE world could become Andy Driver’s oyster in just a few short months.
His Hearts contract expires in June, by which time he could potentially take his pick from a selection of clubs in Europe, Australia, America and the Far East. He is in no rush to exit Tynecastle before then.
At 25, Driver is keen to see out his final six months at Hearts, having recaptured something resembling his best form in recent weeks. A Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final at the end of this month offers the chance of a second cup final in as many seasons, even if nothing could eclipse last year’s Scottish Cup demolition of Hibs. Departing before then isn’t on the player’s agenda, according to those closest to him.
Of course, Hearts could render Driver’s plans redundant if they accept a bid for his transfer before the end of January. He is one of their highest earners and club officials must generate funds and reduce their inflated wage bill quickly. Ryan McGowan has already been sold to the Chinese club Shandong Luneng Taishan, but Driver has yet to prompt any serious interest in the current transfer window.
After nearly ten years as a professional Hearts player, he knows privately his time at Tynecastle is nearing an end. He would prefer to wait until June for a final farewell, though. He has fought ferociously to restore his career following knee and thigh injuries which robbed him of 18 months’ football, not to mention ravaging his confidence and fitness levels. Now he is again resembling his old self – a tantalising left winger with pace, skill and creativity.
Where he goes next is anyone’s guess. Not many Scottish Premier League players could lay claim to being monitored by a string of clubs across the globe. Driver is an exception.
Talks between the player’s representatives and Yokohama Marinos took place in November and a deal was thought to be likely. The Japanese club’s season, however, was extended by a month due to their progress in the Emperor Cup. They eventually played beyond Christmas after reaching the semi-finals and opted not to pursue their interest in the player to focus on more pressing matters.
Driver’s CV has appeared in Australia, but nothing concrete has emerged as yet in terms of offers. He has almost accepted a change of scenery is necessary in the summer, but, perhaps surprisingly, a move to England is far down the list of priorities for a player born in Saddleworth, Oldham.
Driver does not really want to move to a club in England’s Championship or to any team not performing in the premier league in its respective country. Financially, he could find a move further afield more rewarding and is happy to consider continuing his career in a far-flung destination if a suitable opportunity arrives.
That does not mean he will dismiss the notion of staying closer to home. In that respect, France remains a realistic option. The Evening News revealed 12 months ago that the Ligue 1 club Evian were interested in signing Driver and they continued monitoring the player throughout last year. Indications from eastern France are that Evian want Driver in June when his Hearts contract expires. They have, however, yet to put a formal offer on the table.
Evian have several high-earning players on big contracts who must leave before any new recruits can arrive. Their budget does not allow any new additions until June. The matter is further complicated by the fact they are currently fourth bottom of Ligue 1 and could potentially find themselves relegated for next season, which would reduce their appeal to Driver.
Any move will depend heavily on the salary offered. Driver has been on Hearts’ books for almost ten years, having initially moved north to East Lothian aged 11. He emerged from the club’s youth academy to become an established first-team player, earning unprecedented exposure in 2009 when he played for England at the European Under-21 Championship in Sweden. He previously represented Scotland at schoolboy level.
Hearts increased his salary at that time in the hope of securing an inflated transfer fee, with clubs lining up to sign one of the SPL’s biggest assets. Burnley offered £2.5m plus £1m in add-ons, which was rejected by the Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov. FC Twente Enschede, then managed by Steve McClaren, offered £4m. They were also rebuffed.
Romanov believed he could command a bigger fee by placing Driver in a higher wage bracket exceeding £10,000 per week. The same policy worked perfectly with Craig Gordon, who joined Sunderland for a British goalkeeping record £9m in 2007. Injuries, however, ruthlessly brought Driver’s progress to a halt and left him on an inflated salary compared to most of his dressing-room colleagues.
He was left in the Riccarton gym for 18 months as long-term knee and thigh injuries prevented any cardiovascular activity. Consequently, he lost his body shape due to excessive weightlifting. His pace and ball skill has taken time to return as his natural body shape slowly begins to reform. That has allowed him to begin performing like he did before, and recent matches have been peppered with smatterings of his best form.
“I think my form of late has been a lot better,” he told the Evening News just two weeks ago. “My final delivery and everything else has started to come together at the right time. I think my form also coincides with the team starting to do a lot better. Playing on the left (rather than the right) has also been a big help for me. I prefer playing out on the left, that’s where I’ve always played.
“I’m sick of getting asked about when I’ll be back to where I was a few years ago, but hopefully it will happen. I’ve just got to keep my head down and keep working hard. In terms of injuries, I think I’ve only missed half a training session this season when I got kicked on the foot, so it’s all going really well on that side of things. My body feels strong and I’m not getting any aches and pains.”
The return to form comes at an ideal juncture for the player as he tries to impress watching suitors. Wherever Driver ends up, his next club should benefit from a player who is back to top fitness and form and eager to take his career to the next level.