To say left-back has been a problem position for Hearts would be putting it lightly. At least twelve players have filled in at the spot over the last two-and-a-bit years, six in this season alone.
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The latest attempt to fix the issue saw an 18-year-old debutant centre-back shoehorned into the starting XI. Daniel Baur wasn’t too bad in the loss to Kilmarnock, but nobody is expecting him to be the solution either. Despite signing two players for the position in the summer, the oft-injured Ashley Smith-Brown and the underwhelming Rafal Grzelak, Hearts will once again go into a transfer window with left-back scrawled frantically at the top of their wishlist.
Signing players from abroad hasn’t worked. Juwon Oshaniwa, Lennard Sowah, Faycal Rherras and the aforementioned Grzelak have all failed to impress, while there may be a hesitation in using the English market to bring in another loan player after the Smith-Brown deal. There may be some players available for free from down south in January, but likely Hearts would have to wait until the summer to pick up somebody on a free contract.
That leaves us with what Scottish football has to offer, and it’s not as bountiful as Hearts fans would hope. There’s no chance the club will be able to recruit from the likes of Aberdeen, Celtic, Rangers or Hibs in order to solve this problem, while Brian Easton - the best left-back outside the top six - would likely command a fee from St Johnstone that Hearts would be unwilling to pay for a 29-year-old. Motherwell, meanwhile, tend to play with a back three, and their only natural first-team left-back is in his mid-30s.
So where does that leave Craig Levein and his quest to finally put an end to the suffering? The best chance of recruiting someone from Scottish football will either be to sign a left-back to a pre-contract and then hope to secure him six months early for a modest fee, or go to the lower leagues where five-figure sums would perhaps be enough to sign some of the rising talents. Here are the options available...
Callum Booth (Partick Thistle)
In this writer’s opinion, the best top flight left-back available for a free transfer next summer. He’s solid enough in both defence and attack. His prior affinity with Hibs, and a poor side at that, may put off most Jambos.
Kevin Holt (Dundee)
Rebounded from an arduous debut campaign in the top flight and has been solid, if unspectacular, since then. He’d represent a signing which would be somewhat underwhelming but almost guaranteed to be better than what Hearts have at present.
Kenny van der Weg (Ross County)
He’s robust rather than flamboyant at full-back, but can be a little eccentric at times. His playing style is a little similar to Grzelak and that would likely have nervous fans on his back from the start.
Scott Tanser (St Johnstone)
Like the other three Premiership players mentioned, his contract expires at the end of this season. Again, file him under the solid if unspectacular from the limited time he’s seen since signing for Saints in the summer.
Carl Tremarco (Inverness CT)
The Highland club’s best player over their final two years in the top flight, Tremarco is a tenacious worker, an attacking threat in the opposing penalty area, and a decent defender despite his lack of height. Could be available for free next summer as he has a player-option clause in his contract for an extra year. With Inverness at the wrong end of the Championship table, it’s unlikely he’ll want to stick around with his Premiership pedigree.
Jordan Marshall (Queen of the South)
Burst on to the scene as a 19-year-old in 2015 with a number of eye-catching performances for the Dumfries club. Since then he’s not quite kicked on in the manner some would have hoped, but has picked up again this season and still has a lot of upside.
Mark Russell (Greenock Morton)
Consistent performer in Jim Duffy’s team, he’s already made over 100 appearances at the age of 21. A winger earlier in his career, he’s a full-back who likes to get forward. Russell, like Marshall, will see his contract expire next summer.
Jamie Robson (Dundee United)
The 19-year-old is a terrific lower league prospect but, at 19, may not be the answer to Hearts’ left-back woes in the short-term. However, with Southampton among a number of clubs supposedly monitoring his progress, it may be worth the gamble to sign him. It should be noted, though, that Robson, like the last two mentioned above him, would require a compensation fee to sign.