Black eye comes with new role for Hearts defender Stephen Kingsley
The obligatory black eye is an unmissable feature on Stephen Kingsley’s face. Welcome to centre-back life.
Two games into the new season and the Hearts defender is already sporting a central defender’s trademark. He doesn’t mind the switch inside from left-back, nor the physicality that goes with it. It is simply part of the territory.
Manager Robbie Neilson implemented a new 3-4-3 formation this season which is still bedding in. Two Premier Sports Cup wins without conceding a goal is an encouraging sign, although much sterner examinations lie in wait in the cinch Premiership.
The system involves Kingsley operating on the left side of a three-man defence with a wing-back outside him. He has played most of his career on the left of a back four so this is a slight change. The odd keeker is something he must accept.
“That’s what happens at centre-half, eh?” he laughs. “It was actually on Saturday at Peterhead. I was against their big boy up top, Russell McLean. I don’t think it was an elbow, I think it was just a clash of heads. I didn’t even notice it until one of the linesmen told me I had it.
“It’s just one of those things when you’re back playing centre-half. It comes with the job playing there. I thought the other eye was going to get done the other night against Cove Rangers but thankfully I got away with it.”
Comfortable in possession and boasting a vicious free-kick with that left foot, Kingsley is what you might term a ball-playing defender. He is also capable of applying more robust defensive measures when necessary. Those will be needed at times this season.
Hearts intend to use a back three fairly regularly in the months ahead. They agreed a season-long loan deal for Brighton and Hove Albion’s Alex Cochrane with that in mind. He has not been brought north to sit on a substitutes’ bench, so Kingsley might find himself at centre-back more often than not.
Both players appear to have licence to alternate and interchange during phases of play. Their exchanges are perhaps not quite of Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney proportions but it is nonetheless an interesting subplot to Hearts’ new tactic.
“It’s different. I played centre-half in my younger days at Falkirk, although not in a back three,” explains Kingsley. “The left side of a back three is very similar to left-back. You just stay a bit deeper and try to build the play without attacking quite as much.
“You can still break forward and commit people to break lines. I enjoy it. We are all getting used to the rotations in this formation and different aspects of how the gaffer wants us to play. It’s a building process and we still have a bit to go but I like learning it.”
He is also finally discovering the feeling of playing in front of Hearts supporters fully nine months since arriving in Edinburgh. A total of 1,983 fans attended Tuesday’s Cove Rangers match and made a considerable noise despite the low-key nature of the match.
“I joined in October last year and didn’t get the privilege of playing in front of Hearts fans,” says Kingsley. “It’s something I was looking forward to and one of the reasons I wanted to come here. I wanted to experience that atmosphere. It was great to get a taste of it.
“When you’ve gone without fans for so long, 2,000 people feels like 10,000. It gives you brilliant adrenaline, especially the roar just before kick-off. I’m really looking forward to the big derby days with more fans in the ground now.”
Keeping up with young upstarts
The 26-year-old has worked diligently to regain full fitness after a groin injury prematurely ended his participation last season. Having not played competitively since March, he is being eased back into the action after putting himself though a punishing summer programme.
“I didn’t really have an off-season because I wanted to be in the best possible condition when pre-season started. That paid off and I’ve had more game time than I thought I’d get. It was a gradual build-up and now I’ve played both competitive games.
“It was sensible for me to come off after 60 minutes the other night looking at the other fixtures we have coming up. I’ve been working closely with the gaffer and the physios to make sure I’m getting up to speed. I don’t want to be lagging, so I’m pushing myself but just not too much.”
There are also a number of young upstarts to keep up with. Finlay Pollock and Aidan Denholm are both 17, Connor Smith 19 and Euan Henderson 21. All four were all involved in the Cove Rangers win as Hearts try to develop more Riccarton academy graduates into first-team players.
Those who make an impression in the Premier Sports Cup group phase will have a chance of cementing a long-term place in manager Robbie Neilson’s squad for the season ahead.
“We have some really talented lads coming through,” opines Kingsley. “Finlay was great the other night and it’s great experience for him after just turning 17. I’m looking forward to playing alongside him more. Aidan Denholm got his debut as well.
“I’m now officially one of the older ones, which is quite frightening when you think about it. We will all be there for the boys and make sure they learn as much as they can. I know they are talented enough to deal with the pressure.”