THE importance of Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas to Hearts has never been greater. Yet it is conceivable that both centre-backs could be ushered out of Tynecastle to raise funds and reduce wages during the January transfer window. Given their reliable partnership in defence, it is a scenario manager John McGlynn is desperate to avoid.
Only the Scottish Premier League leaders Celtic have conceded less goals than Hearts this season. The champions’ goals against column reads 14, whilst Hearts’ is 20. The Edinburgh club have played one more game than their Glasgow counterparts. Goalscoring may be a concern for McGlynn and his coaching staff, but it is clear Hearts are rock solid at the back.
How much longer they remain so is anyone’s guess. Webster and Zaliukas are amongst 14 players out of contract at the end of the current campaign. As two of the highest earners, and with Hearts needing to bridge a funding gap, their futures are uncertain to say the least. Losing one next month would be risky in a footballing sense. Losing two would be potentially catastrophic. Clubs know Hearts are in a terrible position financially and they will come in with ridiculous offers. That’s just the way of the world,” said the former Hearts defender, Alan McLaren.
“You aren’t going to pay top dollar if you can get what you want for bottom dollar. You see Webster and Zaliukas performing consistently and they will be noticed. Ryan McGowan likewise.
“It’s up to the Lithuanian owners to decide if it’s worth letting a prize asset go and then see their club tumbling down and ending up in the bottom six. That impacts on prize money at the end of the year as well as everything else.
“I think they should leave things as they are for the moment. They need to keep the club as attractive as they can for prospective buyers.”
Darren Barr and the McGowan brothers, Ryan and Dylan, would be the immediate candidates to slot into central defence should a void arise as a result of Hearts accepting a transfer bid. That’s assuming none of them are prised away, for all three are also entering the last six months of their contracts. They have all performed admirably this season but pairing two of them together in a key defensive area mid-season would be a considerable risk. There is a strong argument for keeping Webster and Zaliukas, if that is at all possible.
“Those two have been mainstays and the goals against column isn’t too shabby,” continued McLaren. “That has obviously kept Hearts within touching distance of the top six in the SPL. They are battling away but a lot of the onus is on the defence when you can’t hit the back of the net. The younger lads will have to step in if the two centre-backs go and John McGlynn is well aware of that. For the owners, there’s no point selling your better players and seeing the club go backwards. Then nobody will take it over.
“I’d say Webster will probably go before Zaliukas because Zaliukas seems to be one of the boys. To be fair to him, he has really tightened up this year. He was always liable to give teams one or two chances in a game, now it’s maybe only one or two every few games.”
Webster has been virtually flawless for almost two years since returning to Hearts from Rangers.
At 30-years-old and after well-documented injury problems, he is fully fit and very much in his prime – emphasised by the fact he regained a regular place in the Scotland national team earlier this year. He played the entire 90 minutes of Hearts’ 2-2 draw at St Johnstone on Saturday despite being hindered by a virus. Medical staff advised him to play only part of the match, but at no point did he appear to wane or ask to be substituted.
“He’s a leader, the kind of person that keeps the team together,” said winger Andy Driver. “The way the club’s going with young guys, you need your Andy Websters. In the second half, he’s played through illness. He’s clearly not well, but he’s fighting for his team. He’s probably the most important player in the team. We’ve probably got the best defence in the league with Marius [Zaliukas] and Andy. They are quality players.”
Quality players, though, cost quality wages – the kind Hearts can no longer afford to pay with the club up for sale and debt well over £20 million. The difficulty for the Tynecastle hierarchy is to move on those whose salaries are leaving them with a financial shortfall each year without damaging the team.
Of course, there is no guarantee any player will agree to move even if Hearts negotiate a transfer. “Ryan McGowan decided against a move to Rangers so it will be down to the players,” McLaren pointed out. “If the club is struggling and they come and ask you to go, then sometimes it’s a bit hard to say no. I think the ball is definitely in the players’ court nowadays.
“If Webster and Zaliukas wait until the summer, they are free agents. That gives them an opportunity to increase their own take on things.”
McGlynn has reverted to a 4-4-2 formation for Hearts’ last two matches and been rewarded with a win over Aberdeen and a draw at McDiarmid Park.
Playing in such an open fashion – with two orthodox wingers on either side of a four-man midfield – leaves any team exposed at times. Which is where the tried and trusted defensive partnership comes in. Webster and Zaliukas have developed a crucial understanding over the last two years and their assuredness is the envy of many SPL clubs.
It can only be hoped they are still around after the SPL’s winter break.