Craig Halkett: Hearts must defend better or we'll suffer in the Premiership
Craig Halkett doesn’t need to pause when asked if Hearts must defend better in the Premiership next season. He is candid enough to acknowledge that improvement is vital stepping into the top flight.
His first season at Tynecastle Park ended in an enforced relegation, while his second has brought a Championship title win. The centre-back doesn’t attempt to paper over cracks, though. An unconvincing start to the campaign come August will not do.
At times Hearts have displayed glimpses of a swagger in the second tier but too often their play has been pedestrian and their defending questionable. Any such inadequacies in the Premiership will be ruthlessly exploited, whereas they have at times got away with it this term.
“Yeah, it’s massive. I think there have been scenarios in games this season where we have slipped up and maybe not been punished,” admitted Halkett.
“If you were in the Premiership and made those kind of mistakes you would be punished. You’re playing against better teams and better players – and that’s no disrespect to anyone in this league – they’re the top players in the country.
“So you can’t afford to make those kind of mistakes. Next year defensively it’s going to be massive.
“It has been difficult. The back four or five has chopped and changed quite a lot this season. Don’t get me wrong, I think Christophe Berra and Mihai Popescu both came in and did well.
“They’ve played a lot of games together and there were some really good performances in there. But it’s like everyone, we have had our off days and we have slipped up defensively, myself included.
“To have John Souttar back gives you that boost because everyone in football, all the coaches here and the changing room all know how good a player he is. So to have someone of his standard back in the team does give everyone a lift.”
The key to next season for Hearts will be their opening fixtures. A composed and assertive start would set foundations for a solid and potentially fruitful campaign. They suffered for a poor opening sequence when last in the Premiership in season 2019/20.
“It’s obviously a position we don’t want be in again. We didn’t get off to the best of starts and you end up finding yourself down there,” recalled Halkett. “Once you’re down there and you lose a few games in a row, you start looking at the table and your confidence starts to go.
“So I think it’s about remembering what happened, keeping it in the back of our heads, remembering the feeling we had at the time because we don’t want to feel that way again.
“It’s about going into next season confident, getting a good pre-season under our belts and building on it. I think everyone in the changing-room is looking forward to being back in the Premiership.
“It’s been a difficult year in the Championship but we are back where we want to be, where Hearts should be, and it’s about being focused and doing the things we should be doing next year.”
The final two games are against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at home today and Raith Rovers away next Friday. The Hearts players are acutely aware that they are engaged in an ongoing audition for places next term.
“Since we have wrapped up the league it has been about looking forward and building towards next season,” said Halkett. “From a personal point of view and a player’s point of view, we all have something to play for. You want to play well and make sure you’re in the manager’s plans.
“I don’t think you ever have a meaningless game, you always want to try and play for something and set wee targets. So for myself it’s about putting in two solid performances and making sure I’m in the manager’s thoughts for next year.”
Hearts weren’t playing on the day they were confirmed as champions, Raith and Dundee both failing to win which handed the title to Halkett and his colleagues.
“We had played on the Friday night so I was sitting watching the scores coming in. It was a wee bit unexpected when we found out we had done it but we were obviously delighted. We were glad to get the job done, that was our main objective at the start of the season.
“To do it with a few games to spare was good. Over the season it has been good, it hasn’t been brilliant, it could have been better. But just to get the job done was the main thing and we did that.
“I think after the last summer, the whole scenario of being relegated but not knowing what was happening with all the uncertainty, to get over the line was a good feeling.”
Inverness intend to give Hearts a guard of honour at Tynecastle this afternoon in recognition of their status as champions. The gesture will be appreciated.
“It’s great,” explained Halkett. “We were given one by Morton [on Tuesday] and it was a good feeling, to know what you were expected to do at the start of the season. It gave all the players a wee lift.
“We don’t have anything to play for in the final two games but the teams we are playing against do, so that’s going to be a challenge. And I think all the players have something to play for.”