Hearts have arrived at the biggest crossroads in three years under Ann Budge. The Tynecastle owner and her associates are currently faced with more possible directions than the nearby Haymarket junction, and picking the wrong one just isn’t an option. It is the most pivotal moment since she took the club out of administration in 2014.
A wretched second half of the season saw only six wins in 26 matches after Ian Cathro replaced Robbie Neilson as head coach. Hearts sat second in the Ladbrokes Premiership when Neilson left but finished fifth. Most of the nine new signings in January were sub-standard. Some clearly cared very little about the badge they were representing.
Who replaces them will have a huge influence on whether Cathro can ultimately make a decent fist of his first managerial appointment. He and director of football Craig Levein have wasted no time clearing space in the first-team squad – a fair sign that they intend taking Hearts down the correct path from that aforementioned junction.
Alex Tziolis, Andraz Struna, Lennard Sowah, Tasos Avlonitis, Moha Choulay, Dylan Bikey and Faycal Rherras have all moved on. Regrettably for many, Callum Paterson and Sam Nicholson also intend to leave on freedom of contract, whilst Billy King has already agreed to join Dundee United. It remains to be seen whether Jamie Walker is still a Hearts player come the end of August.
What is not in doubt is the plan to replenish and revitalise the dressing-room. Hearts’ recruitment this summer must be well-researched and bring in the right commodities: A more British if not Scottish core, with experience and desire, plus an understanding of what it means to play at Tynecastle for one of Scotland’s biggest clubs.
Christophe Berra is certainly an encouraging start; confirmation that Hearts are heading towards the right avenue from their crossroads. He has returned to the club he captained before spending the last nine years of his successful career in England. A three-year contract indicates he wants to finish his playing days in Gorgie. The 32-year-old Scotland defender may even be re-appointed Hearts captain for next season.
Also required are two full-backs and a striker, with at least one new winger looking necessary ahead of the new campaign. Budge will watch with interest to see how Cathro and Levein execute their rebuilding programme. Having made millions running her own IT company, the Edinburgh businesswoman knows the value of finding the right staff and not suffering fools gladly.
Hearts fans have suffered too many fools in recent months. Understandably, they are willing those in charge of their club to get recruitment right after the last two transfer windows. One crucial change must be to stop handing long-term contracts to players previously untested at the top level in Scotland – then being forced to loan them out or leave them in the stand earning vast sums in wages. Conor Sammon, Rherras, Gavin Reilly and Juwon Oshaniwa are all examples of the above. Oshaniwa is one of Hearts’ top earners having signed a three-year contract in summer 2015, yet the Nigerian has not played for the club in more than a year. He has been available on a free transfer for around 18 months but no club is willing to take him on the salary he earns.
French midfielder Malaury Martin was given a three-and-a-half-year deal in January but has not proven his worth so far. There remains a doubt over the future of Hearts’ existing captain, Perry Kitchen, who dropped out of the team after Cathro arrived. Kitchen’s compatriot Bjorn Johnsen also faces an uncertain long-term future after a bust-up with Cathro at McDiarmid Park last week.
Then there is the goalkeeping situation after critics rounded on Jack Hamilton. He was first-choice before being taken out of the firing line and replaced by Viktor Noring with three games of the season remaining. The Swede hasn’t covered himself in glory with a costly error on his debut at Ibrox. Do they stick with their current keepers or search for a new No.1?
All these issues must be resolved to pave a clear way forward. Budge is in the process of building a new £12 million main stand at Tynecastle to raise capacity and improve facilities. Almost every penny Hearts have is being invested in the project so she knows she cannot afford to have it half-populated on matchdays. A team performing below standard will not draw in supporters, which is another reason to secure new signings who will have the desired impact.
Cathro and Levein shoulder an unenviable task in that sense. Despite freeing up a significant amount in wages by moving a number of players on, they have only a certain amount of funds available due to the stadium rebuild and must bargain accordingly in the transfer market.
Making informed and astute choices is vital to restore Hearts to a challenging position. Going down the road of tried and trusted new players would be a sensible move, rather than head up a blind alleyway where the future rests on foreign gambles.
It is worth recalling the signing policy Neilson and Levein implemented in the summer of 2014. They needed to rebuild a Hearts team ravaged by relegation and administration and did so by enlisting players who largely knew what to expect.
Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben, Neil Alexander and James Keatings arrived offering plenty previous experience of Scottish football at previous clubs. Danny Wilson signed permanently after a loan spell at Tynecastle from Liverpool, and Adam Eckersley came to Edinburgh as a former Manchester United youth who had played in the English league. Osman Sow was a gem plucked from Crystal Palace’s reserves. All of the above underpinned a record-breaking season which culminated in automatic promotion back to the top flight.
A rebuild of a similar scale is necessary again this year. If it goes well and Hearts start strongly in the Betfred Cup in July, it will be a job well done. They can then proceed down the road of making a solid opening to the Premiership campaign in August.
If recruitment is questionable and season 2017/18 begins in mediocre fashion, many people will reserve judgment but patience will not last long given the disappointing end to this season.
If recruitment overall is poor once again and Hearts start slowly, fans will be screaming for Cathro and his assistant Austin MacPhee to be sacked. And probably Levein with them. The brutal truth is that business done over the next few weeks in Gorgie will be the most important since Budge signed that Creditors’ Voluntary Arrangement to take Hearts out of administration.