Hearts can still get third after keeping squad intact

Rudi Skacel
Rudi Skacel
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HEARTS retained the third strongest squad in Scotland despite many predicting a desperate January in Gorgie. Consequently, they remain powerful contenders to qualify for European football at the end of another tumultuous season.

Cut-price sales to reduce the wage bill did not materialise as the bulk of the Tynecastle squad stayed put to continue pursuing third place in the Scottish Premier League. With the arguable exception of John Sutton, whose imminent loan to Australia’s Central Coast Mariners leaves Hearts with only one experienced fit striker in Stephen Elliott, those who did leave last month were dispensable. Their departures barely weakened manager Paulo Sergio’s group.

Vladimir Romanov, the club’s majority shareholder, has long held a reputation as a driver of hard bargains who enjoys refusing to blink over a negotiating table. By not selling players on the cheap during the transfer window – there were plenty inquiries – he has again fulfilled his duty to the Hearts support.

Of course, he must now continue to do likewise with the playing staff on the 16th of every month to avoid the chaos which engulfed his club late last year. Provided wages arrive on time and harmony remains within the dressing-room, Hearts can be confident of overhauling the six-point gap which currently exists between them and third-place Motherwell to reach next season’s Europa League third qualifying round. In any case, finishing fourth guarantees entry to the tournament’s second qualifying round.

Central to those European ambitions is the team’s talisman, Rudi Skacel. He signed a contract extension on transfer deadline day to remain with Hearts until the summer at least in what was a vital piece of business by Romanov. There were also new deals for goalkeepers Jamie MacDonald and Mark Ridgers, with first-choice Marian Kello out of contract in June.

Skacel, however, was the man supporters desperately wanted to stay. Having delivered the deal to keep him, Romanov and his right-hand man, Sergejus Fedotovas, deserve credit. Much is said about the Lithuanian-based Hearts hierarchy but, despite the need to reduce operating costs, they cannot be accused of not taking the club’s football ambitions seriously.

It was perhaps Skacel’s productivity on the field during January which prompted Hearts to pull out the stops and retain him. A cameo performance in the Edinburgh derby at Easter Road saw him lash an emphatic third goal beyond Graham Stack in the 3-1 victory. Then came a thunderous hat-trick in the 5-2 defeat of St Mirren.

He has managed nine goals in all competitions this season despite not always being one of Sergio’s first picks. Frustration at the restricted game time was relayed via Skacel’s Twitter account last month but he has since regained a starting place and proved his worth. At 32, and with a multitude of European experience, the Czech midfielder’s presence for the imminent Europa League tilt is vital, as is his uncanny knack for bulging nets.

Skacel’s pedestal at Tynecastle has always been rather lofty, dating back to his 17 goals in season 2005/06. Other Hearts players struggled to command the same status. Those viewed as expendable during the transfer window were Eggert Jonsson, Ryan Stevenson, Rob Ogleby, Calum Elliot and Janos Balogh. Others, such as Jason Thomson and Jonathan Stewart, are free to find new clubs but are still contracted to Tynecastle until June.

Significantly for this year’s ambitions, none of the above departures is likely to weaken the Hearts side. Only Stevenson was a first-team regular under Sergio but results took a dramatic upturn after he dropped out of the side in mid-December and refused to play because of ongoing wage delays. Jonsson was sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers for a £200,000 fee having flitted in and out of the side this season. Ogleby, Elliot and Balogh mustered only one appearance between them in the current campaign.

The major headlines for Hearts followers when the transfer window shut involved players who did not move. Skacel agreed his new deal, interest in David Templeton failed to produce an offer close to the £1million Romanov was seeking, and Kello remained in place. Retaining those prized assets means European football remains a strong possibility, rather than a far-fetched ambition.

Sutton is poised to finalise a loan move to Central Coast Mariners in Australia, where the transfer window does not close until February 14. The Englishman has not managed to impress Sergio since the Portuguese coach replaced Jim Jefferies last August, and after six months in Edinburgh he is now keen to move on after three goals in 18 appearances. Further exits are certain in the summer when a number of contracts expire. Kello, Suso, Elliott, Thomson, Stewart, Ian Black, Kevin Kyle, David Obua and Gary Glen all become free agents in June. Most of them will not have their deals renewed as Hearts continue reducing costs.

They will be replaced, largely, by youth academy graduates. Expect players such as MacDonald, Arvydas Novikovas, Ryan McGowan, Scott Robinson and Gordon Smith to form the spine of the side along with experienced mainstays like Andy Webster and Adrian Mrowiec. There will be a vastly different look to next season’s Hearts team, but January’s transfer window has passed leaving the Edinburgh club still very much a force to be reckoned with in the pursuit of European football.