STEPHEN ELLIOTT is eager to capitalise on the fact he is now Hearts’ only fit and experienced striker, starting this weekend against St Johnstone in the fifth round of the William Hill Scottish Cup.
John Sutton’s loan move to Central Coast Mariners in Australia, following Ryan Stevenson’s transfer to Ipswich Town, leaves attacking options decidedly sparse for the Hearts manager Paulo Sergio.
Elliott is determined to command the centre-forward position and make it exclusively his own in their absence.
Gordon Smith and Gary Glen, aged 20 and 21 respectively, are the Irishman’s only challengers with Kevin Kyle still on the long-term injured list. Sutton’s exit, therefore, gives Elliott the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his credentials in his favoured role.
“A lot of players haven’t played as much as they wanted this season,” he explained to the Evening News.
“With John looking like he’s going to Australia, it might give me an opportunity to play up front again. I don’t know what the manager is thinking.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve played a lot on the right wing of the forward line. In the last couple of games I’ve played on the left side and, while I don’t mind playing in a wider role, I’d much prefer to play up front if possible. If I don’t play as a striker then as long I’m in the starting line-up I can’t really complain.
“With John going, there’s me, Gary and Gordon left for the striker position. Whoever plays in the team, we know how the manager wants us to play so we need to work hard for each other. John’s move has popped up out of nowhere; it’s a strange one. He came into the team for the last couple of games and did quite well. We wish him well over there.”
Elliott has found himself restricted to a peripheral role at times this season and is keen to cement himself as a first choice. He has started 12 matches and appeared eight times as a substitute, scoring three goals in total to date. He admits he isn’t comfortable with the role of substitute. After overcoming the tweaked hamstring that forced him off against Inverness two weeks ago, he is hankering after an extended run in the Hearts team.
“You’re always frustrated when you aren’t playing,” he continued. “When I got into the team against Dunfermline, it started a run for me and we got some good results. I enjoyed that period so I was really disappointed having to come off early up in Inverness.
“You’re obviously frustrated not playing – you just need to keep working hard and show the manager that you’re good enough to stay in the team.
“The manager hasn’t said much to me. If you’re in the team he talks to you about what he wants from you. I don’t try to look at anything off the pitch.
“I had a slight hamstring strain, but it was a precaution me coming off against Inverness. I’d felt it in the previous few weeks and I felt it again early in the Inverness game. It just wasn’t getting any easier so I decided to come off to make sure it didn’t get any worse. I’ve trained this week and it’s feeling OK. Touch wood, I’m ready to go this weekend.”
Hearts’ Scottish Cup adventure last season was cut down in its infancy by this Sunday’s visitors. Peter MacDonald’s 86th-minute winner at Tynecastle on January 11 last year propelled a St Johnstone team containing Danny Grainger into the fifth round of the Scottish Cup.
Elliott played that night in a Hearts side which was, at the time, mounting a genuine title challenge in the league, sitting three points behind SPL leaders Celtic. Thirteen months later, third place is the realistic target with the Scottish Cup representing a chance of silverware.
“The Scottish Cup is probably our only chance of winning something this year,” said Elliott. “We know St Johnstone have beaten us twice this season and, even though we have a home tie, it’s not going to be easy. We’re very confident going into the game, though.
“We feel we proved people wrong a bit over the Christmas period. Results hadn’t been great before the Dunfermline game, but we were working extremely hard during that time.
“Once we started that little run we began to get a bit of confidence together.
“Losing two weeks ago maybe stunted that run a bit, but we’re hoping to get back on track with a big cup game this weekend. We want to get back to the results we were getting before we lost at Inverness.
“Up until the Inverness game we were playing probably the best football we’d played all season. The result we got up there was disappointing for everybody, so we’ve got to bounce back. It would be great for Hearts to go on a good cup run and it’s something all the boys want.”
Elliott is one of many Hearts players out of contract at the end of the season, but said he hasn’t given much thought to his future.
“I just have to wait and see. I’m just concentrating on playing at the moment until the end of the season. Then whatever happens after that happens.
“You have your ups and downs as a footballer, but I’ve really enjoyed my time here. I’ve been happy at Hearts, although I’m happier when I’m playing as opposed to not playing.”
Fitness permitting, he is certain to be playing on Sunday. It could be a priceless opportunity for the Irishman to establish himself as Hearts’ first-choice centre-forward.