INTEREST in Craig Beattie combined with Saturday’s 3-0 loss at Motherwell exemplifies Hearts’ need for attacking alternatives. Sandy Clark, the club’s former striker and manager, believes one suitable option may be sitting right under the nose of manager Paulo Sergio.
Gordon Smith has cut a frustrated figure around Riccarton for much of the campaign but Clark feels he could potentially solve Sergio’s attacking woes. Eight goals scored in 14 away matches this season illustrate Hearts’ paucity up front, where voids have recently appeared following the exits of Ryan Stevenson and John Sutton. Stephen Elliott is now the club’s only fit and experienced striker.
Clark feels Smith is long overdue the chance to showcase his youthful exuberance. Evidence of his ability has been scarce due to two starts for Hearts all season, yet those two outings hinted at a talent lurking within. A stirring display and rattling of the crossbar at White Hart Lane last August was, somewhat belatedly, followed up by a winning goal in last month’s William Hill Scottish Cup tie against Auchinleck Talbot.
Smith has had precious little opportunity to stake his claim but has looked sprightly and inventive when on the pitch. Clark explained why the 21-year-old ought now to be given an extended run in the team, perhaps even as a prospective partner for Elliott.
“Gordon Smith is a strange one,” he said. “He played so well at White Hart Lane against Spurs and then seemed to disappear. He came back in and scored the winner against Auchinleck and I saw him come on as a sub with only a few minutes left against Kilmarnock the other week. He never really seems to have had a chance.
“He is one who could maybe just solve Hearts’ problem, but you won’t find out unless he gets time on the pitch. He hasn’t had that opportunity for some reason. It’s a bit strange that he played so well at White Hart Lane and hasn’t had a chance since. Hearts haven’t exactly been prolific, especially away from home.
“Gary Glen has had a lot of opportunities, Scott Robinson played up front before but he’s more comfortable in the middle of the park. Smith, for me, is the one to look at. If I was him right now, I’d be chapping the manager’s door to ask why I’m not getting a chance. He deserves some time in the team to see if he can do the job.”
The notion of playing two forwards together has largely been lost on Sergio since the Portuguese coach replaced Jim Jefferies six months ago. The preferred system has been a lone striker, supported by wingers or attacking midfielders. Elliott’s career history indicates he operates best alongside a companion.
“I don’t think there would be anything wrong with playing two up front,” continued Clark. “At home, the system has worked really well with guys like Rudi Skacel, Ian Black and Robinson getting forward from midfield to support the striker. The problem comes away from home. There is very little up front and Elliott looks isolated, so Hearts therefore don’t offer much of a goal threat.
“I wouldn’t tell Paulo Sergio what to do, but if it’s not working you need to do something about it. What would be wrong with playing two strikers and being a bit more direct? It would be worth trying because Hearts’ away record isn’t great. Smith is the one that deserves a chance alongside Elliott.”
With only Fulham and Coventry City scoring less away goals than Hearts this season in Britain, results outwith Tynecastle do not make pleasant reading. Victories at East End Park and Easter Road are the two bright points on an otherwise disappointing away record.
“I’ve watched Hearts play a lot in recent months and there’s no doubt they are a stronger team at home compared with away from home. That’s not unusual,” said Clark. “The system they play only uses one striker and Ryan Stevenson and John Sutton, who were filling that role, have gone. That creates a void because, with Kevin Kyle injured all season, that’s three players out of the squad. They really should have tried to bring in at least one during January, although maybe the financial position prevented that from happening.”
Clark, whilst championing Smith’s case in particular, stressed he is an admirer of Elliott and explained that the Irishman can play an important role at Hearts.
“Stephen Elliott, on form, is as good as you’ll get up there. I enjoy watching him play. I think he does well with his back to goal and leads the line well.
“You can get away with one striker as long as he’s playing well but it’s an awful lot of responsibility. There will be times when Elliott isn’t fit or isn’t in top form, and then you have a problem. Who do you play in his place?
I’ve watched Gary Glen and I think he’s a decent young player but I can’t see him leading the line on his own. He hasn’t done that at first-team level for Hearts.”
Beattie, a 28-year-old Scotland internationalist, would be an excellent alternative for Sergio. The manager declared at the weekend that he had no idea whether talks were taking place with the player. “I don’t know. It’s not up to me to speak about that,” said Sergio. “I don’t sign anybody. If somebody is making a contract with the club, nobody tells me nothing yet, so I am not speaking about this yet.”
Should Hearts manage to secure his signing, Clark feels he would bring a fresh impetus to the forward line.
“If Hearts get Craig Beattie it would be a good signing. He’s got good legs, he’s a decent size and he can score spectacular goals. He has everything in his favour, the only problem you might have is whether he is fit. He’s had a lot of injury problems over the years. But a match-fit and injury-free Craig Beattie would be an asset to any SPL team.”