Conor Washington reveals concerns over his Hearts future but says he is now 'quicker, stronger and leaner'
Like most high-earning Hearts internationalists just now, Conor Washington is unsure whether he will actually don a maroon shirt again. He stressed he is not planning an exit strategy with 12 months left on his contract.
Much depends on whether club owner Ann Budge can persuade chairmen across the country to agree to league restructuring.
If not, Hearts will remain in the Championship after the Scottish Professional Football League confirmed their enforced relegation last week.
That would prompt more cost-cutting measures across the squad following those imposed as a result of the coronavirus shutdown. Washington is unsure what the future holds for himself.
“At the moment, I'm still a Hearts player. I'm not knocking on the door desperate to get out, but at the same time the club might not be in a situation where they can keep all their players,” he told the Evening News.
"There is obviously a big squad so we just have to see how these reconstruction talks go and take it from there, depending on the club's situation.”
One of his primary concerns is his international career. He currently holds 21 Northern Ireland caps and is a regular in the squad when fit.
"Of course, I just want to be playing football every week at the highest level I can. I think every footballer is the same. Hopefully something comes of the reconstruction talks because Hearts would be a big miss from the Premiership.”
The 28-year-old admitted he feels on tenterhooks knowing Budge may not be able to keep every player in the Championship due to the high salaries earned by senior squad members.
"That's what I was alluding to. As international players, that could well be the case. It's just such an unprecedented situation. Nobody really knows where they stand.
"The club have a lot to deal with right now so there has been no contact between myself and the club over the past couple of months.
“I’ve tried to use the lockdown time as a positive. I've seen it as an opportunity to get quicker, stronger, leaner. It's not often you can dedicate eight weeks to improving yourself physically.
“Even in pre-season there are games to consider, so I've tried to turn the lockdown into a positive. The way this season panned out wasn't good and me getting injured didn't help. With all the other injuries in the squad, it escalated into a bad situation.”
Stendel, appointed Hearts manager in December, is now a free agent. His contract runs until summer 2022 but is only valid for the Premiership. He and Budge will hold definitive talks once she is certain which league her club will play in next season.
"I can't imagine somebody who has managed in the English Championship and League One would necessarily want to manage in the Scottish Championship,” said Washington.
"He's got his own ambitions as well and he's highly regarded by many people, so it will be interesting to see what develops. Obviously we would be sad to see him go.
"As a person, he is spot on. He came in during a difficult period so it's hard to make too much of a judgment. He came in with one transfer window and tried to do what he could.
"We were in a relegation dogfight which isn't easy for any manager.”
Washington arrived in Edinburgh last summer with far loftier ambitions than fighting the drop. Enticed to Scotland by Northern Ireland assistant coach Austin MacPhee, he suffered a torn hamstring in September and missed three months of football.
Just as he was approaching peak fitness again, coronavirus struck. The player’s frustration is palpable in conversation. "I was starting to get there when I got injured. Then I was nearly there again just as football stopped,” he said.
“What we've experienced this season has been a real disappointment but on top of that I haven't been able to show what I'm about.
"I signed for Hearts because it seemed like a good fit. I really liked the place and I knew Austin. I don't feel I could have done anything about the injury but there is such a sense of disappointment over what I actually contributed.
"Even before my injury, it was a tough period for the club. We weren't winning and nothing seemed to click.”
The SPFL have been fiercely criticised since demoting Hearts and clubs will now discuss possible league reconstruction next week at the governing body’s request.
Budge has proposed a change to three leagues of 14 for two years. Washington is eager for clarity soon to help clubs move forward and plan for next season.
"It's a tough situation for everybody. People have to do what is best for their own club and can't do anything else. Whether that's to vote yes or not, it would just be good to know where we are,” he stated.
"That's been the most frustrating thing. I saw an interview with Danny Swanson the other day and he was saying the whole thing has been a shambles because nobody knows where they stand.
"It's been exactly that. Lads are coming to the end of their contracts in a few days and clubs can't commit to signing anybody. It's been a real mess but I do have some sympathy with the powers that be because of the situation they are having to deal with.”
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