sergio’s game of risk

Paulo Sergio gathers his squad during training
Paulo Sergio gathers his squad during training
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HEARTS will take a calculated risk this weekend by resting several first-team mainstays for the league visit to Dunfermline. It is no favour to former manager Jim Jefferies, nor is it gamesmanship to assist Hibs’ relegation rivals. Simply, Hearts’ top-six place is safe, so they must now protect certain players ahead of the Scottish Cup semi-final with Celtic.

Ian Black’s hernia complaint means he is guaranteed to be omitted at East End Park. Craig Beattie, who has a heel problem, may join him. Jamie Hamill is one caution away from an SPL suspension and is therefore unlikely to be asked to walk a tightrope in Fife. One or two others could also be removed from the team which beat Aberdeen on Saturday to guarantee their availability for Hampden Park the following week.

The plan is logical but carries some danger. Those left out will be replaced with younger and far less experienced colleagues, some still in their teens and eligible for Hearts’ under-19 side.

The talent emerging from the Riccarton youth academy is not in question, but manager Paulo Sergio should be wary of introducing too many of its pupils at once.

Defeat by Dunfermline, coupled with wins for St Johnstone at home to Inverness and Dundee United away at Aberdeen, would leave Sergio’s side sixth in the table with a seven-point gap to their counterparts in fourth and fifth.

That would be a difficult, although not impossible, tally to overhaul to guarantee European qualification during the five post-split fixtures. It would also interrupt momentum ahead of the semi-final.

However, Dunfermline are yet to record a home win this season and that may influence Sergio’s thinking and team selection on Saturday. Should results go in Hearts’ favour, they could find themselves only one point off the automatic European spots. The manager’s decisions will be pivotal.

Sergio has been very open about his intention to blood prodigious youngsters during the final matches of the season.

“They will play. I’m going to give chances to them,” he said. “Not because I’m here to give things just like that, but because they deserve it and they work hard. They are very important to the team. A football player doesn’t have an age. It doesn’t matter if he is 45 or 15. Since he works and shows his quality, it’s our job to give him a chance at the right moment. Not to put players in at the wrong time – we can kill them.

“Every game is different and sometimes we are going to play better, and sometimes we are going to play worse. All I’ve promised from the day I arrived here is what I love: a team working hard, giving everything on the pitch, being honest. When you work hard, normally you get results.”

He has been conveying this message for several weeks, perhaps partly out of eagerness to please Hearts’ Lithuania-based hierarchy and secure his contract for next season. Vladimir Romanov, the club’s majority shareholder, and director Sergejus Fedotovas both want young players to gain maximum exposure, and Sergio is more than willing to conform.

Speaking back on March 19, he explained: “Once you are in that position [top six] you must look to win games and give a chance to other players.

“We will think about that. We have time to do that after the split, to test and try our younger players. Not changing the team each time but giving a chance to the boys. But I want to keep looking to win games and we’re going to do that.”

This weekend will signal the strength of that intention. The imposing Ukrainian midfielder Denis Prychynenko, 20, made his senior debut in the final minutes of the Aberdeen match and is likely to play at some stage against Dunfermline. A week earlier, 19-year-old Jason Holt scored on his first start for Hearts in Perth, and he should also feature. Others in contention are Scott Robinson, Gordon Smith, Jordan Morton, Arvydas Novikovas and Gary Glen.

Midfield is the biggest area of concern for Sergio and his decisions on who to play and who to rest could have a big bearing on how the final few weeks of the season pan out. With Adrian Mrowiec already sidelined for the rest of the campaign with a knee injury, leaving out both Black and Hamill would render Hearts desperately short on experience in a key department.

Prychynenko, Robinson and Holt are all individually capable of filling voids, but the risk of deploying all three at once may be too great. The presence of people like Andy Webster and Rudi Skacel, the latter fresh from two outstanding goals against Aberdeen, will be vital to balance things out.

“Skacel is a bit of a legend,” said Ryan McGowan, himself an example of why gradual introduction to first-team football is crucial for any academy graduate. “You see when he scores what he means to the fans. He’s been a cup winner and Webster has been one of our best players this season. As have others like Black, Grainger and Hamill, so it’s important to keep them and bring younger ones through.”

Older and wiser heads are vital to any ambitious youngster, no matter their level of talent. Hearts’ clutch of academy kids have waited months for their chance and, in a season when the club is one game away from Hampden, this Saturday at East End Park will be their cup final.