Mentioning someone in the same breath as John Robertson and Rudi Skacel is zenithal praise around Gorgie. If any player can handle such pressure, it is Kyle Lafferty. His value to Hearts this season is underlined by the fact he is now within touching distance of goal tallies posted by legendary predecessors.
Tynecastle’s landscape is vastly different since Robertson lashed 20 competitive goals for Hearts in season 1991/92. Five years later, he reached 19. Skacel’s exploits in Edinburgh include 17 goals in 2005/06 and 18 in 2011/12. Adding to the mystique, the Czech’s last two strikes in a maroon shirt came in the 5-1 Scottish Cup final destruction of Hibs at the end of that campaign.
Lafferty is verging on exalted company, then. The Northern Ireland internationalist dispatched the 17th goal of his first Hearts season on Saturday against Partick Thistle. It was his 34th appearance. With seven games remaining, this is already the most inspired year of his career. His previous best was 15 goals with Rangers in 2010/11.
One more for Hearts equals Skacel’s best. Two more earns parity with Robbo on 19. Three more would make him the most productive Tynecastle forward in more than quarter of a century.
His off-field gambling issues are well-documented and, in that sense, Lafferty will be amongst the more challenging members of manager Craig Levein’s squad. However, on the pitch he is rewarding Levein and club owner Ann Budge for their patience, faith and support.
He is paid handsomely to bulge nets and is certainly earning his living since returning to Scotland. At 30, he is firmly in the prime of his career. Few would bet against him reaching the 20 mark come May.
“Rudi and Robbo – any time you mention them to any Hearts fan you get a reaction,” said Gary Locke, the Hearts ambassador who played alongside Robertson and coached Skacel at Tynecastle. “They are heroes here; players the fans absolutely adored. If Laff can get level or even ahead of them on the scoring charts over one season, it would be a phenomenal achievement.
“Working with Rudi and Robbo, they are two of the best finishers I’ve ever seen. They used to put the ball in the net in training and in games and it was phenomenal to watch. They could score with every type of finish. It’s great to see Laff producing the same. He has had one or two issues during the season but, when he’s on the pitch firing on all cylinders, he is a huge player for us.
“I certainly wouldn’t put it past him getting to 20. Robbo was a fantastic striker who scored every type of goal. Laff is pretty similar. He’s scored quite a few different goals this season. If we keep creating chances, he’s shown he will put the ball in the net. It would be a great achievement hitting the 20 mark. Any striker who gets that number of goals in a season is certainly doing something right.”
Lafferty was courted by both Hearts and Hibs last summer after his release from Norwich City. He chose to sign a two-year contract at Tynecastle. Revealing his gambling addiction last September left him open to criticism and jibes from some opposition fans, but he didn’t allow the attention to unsettle him. He simply continued scoring and, apparently, smiling.
“It’s not just the goals he’s scoring. He’s a big personality. I go up to Riccarton and I’ve been in the dressing room after home games. You can see he’s a character about the place – a lovable rogue, if you like,” revealed Locke.
“If you get on with each other off the pitch and you’ve got a good dressing room, you’ve got a better chance of success. With people like Lafferty, Steven Naismith, Christophe Berra and John Souttar, the nucleus of the team is there. Add in one or two round about that and you will have a really good side.
“Craig will see that himself. The spine of the team is there if you can keep them all, especially the boys on loan. You’ve got the goalkeeper, Souttar and Berra, Jo [Adao] in midfield with Naismith and Lafferty up top. The backbone is strong.
“We have a lot of experienced players in there allied with some cracking young boys. The mix is decent. Craig is talking about adding seven or eight better players, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t be back where we want to be next season.”
Several foreign clubs are monitoring Lafferty’s progress and he was linked with a move overseas during the January transfer window. Hearts will do everything to hold on to the Northern Ireland forward who has become an iconic figure with supporters.
“We’ve been crying out for somebody like Laff,” admitted Locke. “Hearts have had different heroes over the years but the guys who score the goals are the ones fans take to more than others. You can see he’s become a bit of a cult hero here. The supporters have a couple of songs for him.
“His goals return this season is fantastic – 17 goals is great in anybody’s book. Hopefully he’ll continue that to the end of the season and we can finish at least fifth. You never know, if he gets a few more, we can target the teams above us until it’s mathematically impossible.”
Indeed, if you do the maths, it adds up to Lafferty being one of the most deadly Hearts forwards of modern times.