Despite Hearts entering the business end of the campaign with an Edinburgh derby this week and a Scottish Cup semi final around the corner, preparation is well underway for next season.
On Monday, the club announced that Livingston defender Craig Halkett has agreed a pre-contract and will move to Tynecastle on a three-year-deal in the summer.
It is a signing which has been welcomed by the Hearts support, and understandably so. The 23-year-old has been one of the best players in the Ladbrokes Premiership this season, marshalling the Livi defence.
He is a defender’s defender; combative, aggressive and fearful. Only one centre-back - team-mate Declan Gallagher - has been involved in more aerial duels than Halkett’s 308. His success rate of 63.64 per cent is slightly lower than John Souttar but the same as Clevid Dikamona.
His commitment to keeping clean sheets - of which there have been 12 in the league - is seen in the number of shots he has blocked (21). Only St Johnstone’s Joe Shaughnessy has blocked more.
He is more than a blood and thunder, meat and potatoes centre-back, though. His reading of the game is exemplary, making 207 interceptions, again bettered by only Shaughnessy, while he is competent with the ball at his feet. Livi are not what you would class as a footballing outfit but an average of 74.74 per cent of his passes reach their target.
The glass half-full Hearts fans are already envisaging Halkett slotting into the defence alongside both Souttar and Christophe Berra. Those of a more pessimistic persuasion see him as either a replacement for Souttar or the beginning of Berra being fazed out.
On an optimistic level there can be little doubt he would seamlessly fit into a back three alongside the aforementioned duo, having played in a centre-back trio for a large part of the last three seasons.
It would provide Hearts with greater solidity and Halkett would complement his new team-mates, acting as almost a link between the qualities of the respective pair.
It is clear why Halkett can be seen as a successor to Berra. The Hearts captain has not been the same player, reaching the standards of last season, since his injury against Celtic, with the incoming defender a more modern version.
Watching Livingston it, at times, is like watching the previous campaign’s vintage of Berra. There is a certain prescience to the way he defends, always appearing to be in the right place when the ball is crossed from wide, or simply requiring a step to block a shot or thwart a forward breaking into the Livi box.
Armband wrapped around the bicep, he’s the type of defender you set your watch to. Right place, right time. He’ll put himself into situations where he’ll could easily be on the receiving end of a whack, but it’s all in the enjoyment of defending.
It is expected that Hearts will have to fend off interest in Souttar this summer. In this writer’s eyes, he’s the best young centre-back Scotland have.
Halkett replacing the Scotland international is a less natural fit. The Livingston defender is not uncomfortable with the ball at his feet but he doesn’t have the same composure, drive and vision when stepping out of defence. In fairness, there are few centre-backs in Scotland who can make an assist similar to Souttar’s for Marcus Godinho against St Johnstone.
Hearts boss Craig Levein said of Halkett: “He’s a talented player and, at 23-years-old, is at an age where he can continue to develop and progress. This club is the right place for him to do so.”
While older than his future team-mate, there is still plenty of room for development, and his ball-playing is one area which can and likely will be worked on, especially if he is required to fill the void if Souttar is sold for a significant sum.
Yet, no matter what is in store for Hearts in the summer, the signing of Halkett can already be regarded as shrewd.
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