The dynamic of the Hearts squad has changed so radically over the past two months that Ian Cathro will only be able to select a maximum of nine players against Rangers tomorrow who featured in the 18-man match-day pool for his first game in charge at Ibrox in early December.
Due to a combination of departures, international duty, serious injuries and minor injuries, Robbie Muirhead, Igor Rossi, Tony Watt, Conor Sammon, Alim Ozturk, Arnaud Djoum, Callum Paterson, John Souttar and Prince Buaben are all certain to be missing from the equation when Mark Warburton’s team arrive at Tynecastle.
In addition to those nine players, Krystian Nowak and Rory Currie are doubtful through injury and illness, while it remains to be seen if Faycal Rherras will be included after returning from AFCON with Morocco.
It is not inconceivable that as few as six or seven players from the match-day squad less than two months ago will be listed tomorrow, and this number will include substitute goalkeeper Viktor Noring, who is yet to make a competitive appearance for the club.
Only a maximum of six players from the starting XI in the last Rangers match can be picked tonight – Rherras, Jack Hamilton, Don Cowie, Perry Kitchen, Jamie Walker and Bjorn Johnsen.
The voids, of course, will be filled, predominantly, by the nine new faces who have arrived at Hearts since the start of the January transfer window – defenders Lennard Sowah, Aaron Hughes, Andraz Struna and Tasos Avlonitis; midfielders Alexandros Tziolis, Malaury Martin and Mo Choulay; and forwards Dylan Bikey and Esmael Goncalves, In addition, Sam Nicholson has recovered from injury and Angus Beith has returned from his loan spell at Stirling Albion.
There is no doubt that Hearts’ squad, in terms of numbers, is in more robust shape than it was before Christmas. The key question is whether the quality has increased, and that is something that will only become clear in the weeks and months ahead. The majority of the new recruits boast a pedigree which suggests they should raise the standard at Tynecastle. Among them, three - Hughes, Tziolis and Struna - are full internationalists who have represented their countries within the last year. Avlonitis and Martin both have relatively prestigious European clubs on their CVs, while Goncalves has already proved himself capable of illuminating Scottish football during a brief spell with St Mirren in 2013. Of the nine, perhaps only Sowah and Bikey can be considered to have kept low recent profiles, but the German has already shown enough promise to suggest he can make the left-back berth his own, while Bikey falls into the extremely low-risk punt category.
The problem Hearts will have, of course, is integrating so many players – none of whom are Scots – into the side in the middle of a campaign. A year ago, Abiola Dauda arrived boasting a decent pedigree, but toiled to make an impact in a relatively settled Hearts side riding along nicely in the top three of the Premiership. The current batch of recruits – the majority of them, at least – are going to have to hit the ground running if Hearts are to breathe new life into a campaign which has faded badly over the last two months ago.
When nine signings are made, there will inevitably be some who don’t cut the mustard. Seven of the nine have been signed only until the end of the season. The majority will be keen to win themselves new contracts, which should, in theory, work in Hearts’ favour. Arnaud Djoum is a prime example of a player signed on a short-term deal who made a rapid impact and earned himself a longer-term contract. Igor Rossi, who was initially signed on a one-year deal, was also quick to earn himself an extension. There will be scope to tie down all of those on short-term deals if they adapt quickly to life at Hearts, so this January recruitment drive need not necessarily be viewed as a short-term fix.
Martin and Goncalves are the two who have been secured on three-and-a-half-year deals, so there will be particular scrutiny on them in light of how the issuing of long-term contracts has backfired with the likes of Soufian El Hassnaoui, Sammon and Juwon Oshaniwa in recent seasons. Although he does not boast the highest pedigree of the new arrivals, the burden of expectation will fall most heavily on Goncalves for several reasons, not least the £175,000 transfer fee and the length of his contract. Unlike any of the other new faces, Hearts fans have a clear vision in their minds of what the Portuguese forward is capable of after watching him help St Mirren beat their team in the 2013 League Cup final. His memorable spell in Paisley four years ago suggests he should be able to adapt quickly to Scottish football. There is little chance of Goncalves being found wanting in terms of confidence or match sharpness since he scored ten goals in his last 14 games for Anorthosis Famagusta, including a double in his farewell match at the weekend. All the ingredients are there for the bustling 25-year-old to sate Hearts fans’ yearning for a genuine goal-scoring striker. Johnsen has shown glimpses of his quality since arriving in the summer, but, Osman Sow aside, Hearts haven’t had a genuinely reliable centre-forward for the best part of a decade since Andrius Velicka left. Particularly in light of the injury to Paterson, the free-scoring right-back, they need a striker like Goncalves to step up and ease the weight on support men like Walker, Nicholson and Djoum.
There is no escaping the fact that Hearts’ work this month carries a high degree of risk, but the need for such extensive recruitment has been prompted by circumstances, such as the injuries and the fact the likes of Ozturk, Sammon and Watt were clearly no longer part of the long-term picture at Tynecastle. If the new-look team lose to Rangers, it will be difficult for Cathro to galvanise the support and regain genuine momentum early enough to salvage the campaign, certainly in terms of finishing in the top three of the Premiership. However, the fact there is so much experience among the new recruits ought to aid the transition. For instance, it is hard to envisage the 31-year-old, 63-times capped Tziolis being overawed by the prospect of facing Rangers if he is pitched in for a quickfire debut.
It is impossible to predict with confidence how things will pan out, but Hearts’ spectacular mid-season splurge has certainly added intrigue, and some much-needed hope, to a campaign which, for much of the past two months, has looked in grave danger of fizzling out.