Cole Stockton is set for a second consecutive start for Hearts in the likely absence of Kyle Lafferty against Hamilton Accies today.
The Liverpudlian was given his first start in three months – and only his second in total for the Tynecastle side – in last weekend’s goalless draw with Ross County after illness restricted Lafferty to a substitute’s role.
The Northern Irishman is still being plagued by the virus and is unlikely to be deemed well enough to start this afternoon’s match at Tynecastle. “Kyle’s not trained this week,” said manager Craig Levein. “He doesn’t look great at all. There is a slim chance he might make it but I’m not hopeful.”
Levein has no qualms about pitching in Stockton. The 23-year-old targetman has struggled to command game time since arriving from Tranmere Rovers in the summer, but Levein has been encouraged by his attitude and progress recently.
“Cole didn’t arrive in the best of shape, but he’s worked really hard,” said Levein. “He has come up here, and he is third-choice striker. The other two (Lafferty and Esmael Goncalves) are well known and they have scored goals. He has had moments where he has been really eager, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to get in the team, and he drops off again. Then he gets his enthusiasm back after a kick up the backside or whatever he needed.
“I think, at moments when he felt like he wasn’t going to get a chance, he has felt a little bit sorry for himself and hasn’t quite been putting everything he has got into it. In the last six weeks or so, I can’t level that at him. He’s now at a point where his performances in training have stayed pretty high and putting him in last week wasn’t an issue because he has trained really well.”
Levein believes Stockton has the credentials to emerge as an effective focal point within a team which still hasn’t clicked as an attacking force. “This league is about physicality at times,” said the manager. “We have kind of addressed that defensively by bringing Christophe Berra in. At the other end of the pitch, we need somebody who can do a similar sort of thing. I see Cole as a target man.
“I have been trying to find a combination between Kyle and Isma, but in a sense they both run about too much. Cole gives the midfield players something to focus on to make their runs. As a midfield player, you support the front if you know you are going to get some joy out of it. If you keep supporting the front and you don’t get the ball, you feel it is not worth making the effort to run forward.”