Hearts' Craig Wighton ranked beside Robert Snodgrass and Leigh Griffiths
Patience with Craig Wighton will see Hearts handsomely rewarded when the forward reaches peak fitness and form.
The Dundee youth coach James McPake played with and managed Wighton and ranks him as prodigious a talent as Scotland internationalists Robert Snodgrass, Leigh Griffiths and Graham Dorrans.
The 21-year-old is still finding his feet at Tynecastle Park after leaving Tayside in August for an undisclosed fee. He missed eight months of last season with a snapped anterior cruciate ligament and has also suffered niggling injuries since returning to action in March. Hearts will give him plenty time to adjust despite being light in attack due to injuries.
McPake stressed that such stoicism will pay off. He played with Snodgrass, Griffiths and Dorrans at Livingston and puts Wighton in the same bracket. A striker with undoubted technical ability and flair, he has gained strength with gymwork and is on the way to becoming a true footballing athlete, according to McPake.
“I’ve played with a few really good kids like Robert Snodgrass, Leigh Griffiths and Graham Dorrans. Craig is up there with them,” said McPake, who took time out from his UEFA Pro Licence course in Switzerland to speak to the Evening News.
“Those players can all win a match at any time and Craig’s got that. He also has a real strength about him, which I’ve seen in the gym. Liam Fox [Hearts coach] said to me he couldn’t believe how strong Craig was.
“That doesn’t automatically make you a good footballer but he has the other tools as well. You think of Craig Wighton as a good footballer but people don’t think about how strong or quick he is. He has maybe been tarnished as a tidy, technical footballer and nothing more.
“For me, he is on his way to being a complete athlete. He has also shown real mental strength coming back from such a bad injury.”
Wighton may now find himself getting more game time having played sporadically for Hearts so far. With Steven Naismith and Uche Ikpeazu sidelined, he and Steven MacLean are the only recognised forwards available to manager Craig Levein between now and Christmas.
“I played with Craig Wighton, I’ve coached him and I’ve been his mate in the gym at times. He is a match-winner,” said McPake. “He has come back from the ACL and that was tough. He’s gone to a different club and just needs to find his place there and get a run in the team.
“This is just my opinion, but I think when Paul [Hartley] was the manager and then Neil [McCann] that Craig should have been in the team. He has so much to offer. It’s easy for me to say because I don’t pick the team and I’m not under the same pressures as the manager.
“Craig is a big loss to Dundee. The manager decided to do that deal and he’s gone now. I had a conversation with Craig Levein the other week when Hearts played Dundee and when they get him firing on all cylinders he will be a great signing.
“People need to be patient because he is still coming back from a major injury. He might need a pre-season under his belt and it might even be next season before he’s at his absolute best. People who know him know what he is capable of.
“He burst on to the scene at Dundee and had a lot to deal with as a young kid. He was quite high-profile in a Dundee context. That will stand him in good stead when he is playing every week for Hearts.”
Wighton was reared within Ian Cathro’s coaching school alongside Ryan Gauld and John Souttar. It was through that connection that he first came to Levein’s attention. The pursuit of his signature has gone on for several years, with one previous Hearts bid of around £80k rejected by Dundee in January 2016.
It was at the end of that same winter transfer window that Souttar was lured to Edinburgh from Dundee’s neighbours United for the modest sum of £120,000. The centre-back’s rapid development over the intervening two and a half years earned him a Scotland international debut in September.
Wighton is viewed as a similar project who the Hearts coaching staff hope to hone into a key player. “They signed quality with John Souttar,” said McPake, himself an international defender with Northern Ireland. “Craig Levein is an experienced manager so he doesn’t just sign potential. He believed John Souttar had the quality and he was proven right. John is now a full internationalist.
“There is more to Craig Wighton than just potential. He has played nearly 100 games in the top flight. What Hearts signed is a quality player who has years in front of him to develop and become better. Guys like Steven MacLean, another quality player, will help younger folk like Craig. He can only flourish in that environment with someone like Aaron Hughes there as well, who I know.”
Levein’s strategic planning stretches back to his early days back at Hearts as director of football. With the club only a few months out of administration and playing in the Scottish Championship, he was already sowing the seeds for Wighton’s move to Gorgie.
“It hasn’t been an off-the-cuff decision. I spoke to Craig Levein about Craig Wighton four years ago at an under-20 game. It wasn’t a move Hearts made out of the blue,” revealed McPake.
“It’s been something Hearts thought through carefully and it’s been well planned out. I hope he does well at Tynecastle because Craig is a really nice kid and Hearts will have themselves a right good player when they get him right.”
In flashes so far he has looked useful but an extended run in the team is important for any player to gain momentum. Either up front or out wide, Wighton will hope to use his versatility to his and Hearts’ advantage. He already knows he is highly regarded by those in charge.
“Craig hasn’t hit the ground running. He will be the first one to tell you that,” said McPake. “It’s easy to forget, though, that not long ago he had that ACL injury and was working in the gym. He came back at Dundee and probably didn’t get the game time he should have had after the injury.
“Yet, still people at Hearts were trusting enough to pay money for him and used their instincts to go and get him. That tells you all you need to know. He has a lot to offer them.”