Career highlight driving Craig Halkett's Hearts return after surgery

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The backstory to Craig Halkett’s football career is well-documented: Released by boyhood club Rangers, relegated to the third tier with Livingston, then an enforced demotion at Hearts. Hardship seems to have been a constant during the defender's journey.

Now he finally gets to write a new chapter, a more positive episode which may well evolve into the pinnacle of his playing days. Halkett’s own defiance and resilience helped him recover from those setbacks to the point where he is preparing for European competition at Tynecastle Park. No-one can say he hasn’t earned the right to be there.

First, he must regain full fitness after ankle surgery. Medical staff at Riccarton estimate he should be ready for friendly action before the month ends, which is ideal timing with Hearts’ first European match scheduled for August 18.

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Those ties, and subsequent group matches in the Europa League or Europa Conference League, will be the highlight of Halkett’s career to date. He joined Hearts three years ago specifically to play on such high-profile occasions.

“Definitely, aye. When I came to Hearts, that was something I had in the back of my head – that they were a club that could push for these sort of games,” he explained. “Unfortunately it didn't go that way the first three years, but we've managed to do it. It will 100 per cent be the highlight of my career.

“Speaking to Andy [Halliday] and Craig [Gordon], who have experienced it before and say how good it is, it's something I'm massively looking forward to. Hopefully when they come, it's not just going to be about taking part and enjoying the experience. We want to put our stamp on it. We're a good team and hopefully we can pick up some points along the way.”

Motivation is coursing through the club’s first-team squad at the moment as new signings arrive to help cope with the demands of both domestic and European fixtures. These are the rewards of last season’s endeavours.

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“It's huge,” said Halkett. “Last season was brilliant and we've spoken about it loads, about actually getting those rewards like reaching the cup final and knowing we'd secured European football. Knowing you’ve got all that to look forward to and play for, it's all ahead of you and that's given me that extra wee push.

Craig Halkett is close to returning from injury for Hearts.Craig Halkett is close to returning from injury for Hearts.
Craig Halkett is close to returning from injury for Hearts.

“Although the European games are over a month away, they'll come around pretty quick once the pre-season friendlies get underway. The main aim is get back for the start of the season, get a few games under my belt and be ready for the European games.

“It's actually been really good so far. I'd like to say I'm a little bit ahead of schedule. Everything went well from the day I got out of the operation and came back all clear from the surgeon. It's just about getting the head down and working as hard as possible.”

The 27-year-old had an operation after last season’s Scottish Cup final having fought hard to make himself available despite recurring ankle pain. The injury stemmed from the semi-final against Hibs. “It was two or three days after the final. That decision was made after I got injured in the semi-final,” he revealed.

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“I spoke to the surgeon the week after. I'd be able to play in the final then just get it done straight away, which would mean I'd miss a little bit of pre-season but it wouldn’t eat into the start of the season.

“I came back and played about 15 minutes against Rangers in the last league game but that was more a mental thing. Having been out for so long, it would've been a big ask to just go and play in a cup final.

“It was important to get minutes there and we had a bounce game which was a little bit of a setback at the time. I ended up going for an injection the day after which helped quite a bit, along with heavy strapping and some pain killers. Thankfully, it was okay for 120 minutes in the final.”

He travelled to southern Spain last week to continue his own rehabilitation whilst team-mates trained at a pre-season camp. “It's been tough. This is the first time I've had an operation and a major injury,” said Halkett. “Being out for a while, it came at a good time in that it was during the summer.

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“Going to Spain with the boys and not being able to join in training, just doing my own stuff, it's been tough. I missed the friendly game too and you want nothing else than to be back out there. I know it's going to come in a few weeks and I'm looking forward to it.”

Beni Baningime, in the middle of rehabilitating from a cruciate ligament injury, is Halkett’s recovery partner. “We have been helping one another. There's been some sights in the gym with Beni,” smiled Halkett.

“I can’t say I've been in with him a lot but it's good to have another boy in the squad injured because you can push each other. You're not in it alone, grinding away, so I'm getting a nice wee bond going with Beni.”

There is also extra competition in defence with the arrivals of Lewis Neilson and Kye Rowles. “It's always good as a player to have competition,” acknowledged Halkett. “You don't want to go through Monday to Friday knowing that you're going to be playing on the Saturday. You want to have been pushed along all the way.

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“Lewis looked really good against Europa in Spain, I was impressed. I’ve not met Kye yet but I watched the Australia v Peru game and he got man of the match. He looked really solid so I'm looking forward to him coming in as well.

“We're going to have a lot of games Thursday-Sunday. We'll need to use the whole squad so it's good to have the numbers.”

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