John Souttar is favourite to captain Hearts in Christophe Berra’s absence this weekend.
The club skipper is beginning six months of rehabilitation on a torn hamstring suffered against Celtic six days ago. After he was stretchered off, Souttar proved himself a mature and reliable deputy.
The 21-year-old is now ready to lead Hearts out at Dunfermline in the last 16 of the Betfred Cup, providing manager Craig Levein again offers him the armband. “I haven’t decided. Possibly Souttar but there are a few other captains in that team,” explained Levein.
“We’ve got Naisy [Steven Naismith] and Steven MacLean, but then Souttar’s performance in the second half against Celtic was captain-like so I have a choice to make. The good thing is that the ones we have got will do their captain’s part whether they are wearing the armband or not.
“I feel we have a few players in the team who are leaders and who don’t need an armband to prove that, so I’m not worried about that side of things.”
Levein is more concerned with Hearts maintaining a fine start to the season. They overcame a two-point deduction to win Group C and reach the Betfred Cup knockout stage, the reward being tomorrow’s trip to East End Park.
The Edinburgh club are also sitting top of the Ladbrokes Premiership after their opening two fixtures – a 4-1 victory at Hamilton and the 1-0 home win against Celtic. Levein isn’t keen to label the decent start as any kind of definite resurgence just yet.
“I’ll hesitate for a second, just to wait. Things can happen, like Christophe. You think everything is going along swimmingly and then that happens. Whenever you think you’ve cracked it, you can bet your life you haven’t.
“It has been a good start and the Celtic game was the icing on the cake. I thought we would do well but I didn’t think we would do as well as we did. Maybe that is me worrying or being a bit negative.
“To restrict Celtic to the chances they had and to have more opportunities, more shots on target than they did, and to see that in terms of possession we weren’t that far apart, a lot of things were good. Winning the game was the most important thing.
“Now it’s Dunfermline and now people will expect us to just go there and win. That’s the expectation that comes with winning the first two matches of the season and beating Celtic. I would rather that than be going there having started the season not so well.”
Partnering Souttar in central defence will be Aaron Hughes. Hearts will sign another centre-back to cover for Berra’s injury but that will likely take a few days. Moving Peter Haring back to defence is not an option due to the Austrian’s imperious displays in central midfield.
“Aaron will play on Saturday because I don’t think I’ll be able to do anything before then,” said Levein. “I’ve made my mind up, I don’t want to move Peter. That would be making two changes. He is doing well just now and I don’t want to jeopardise that. We need to get someone in.”
There is plenty for Hearts to be wary of crossing the River Forth, for there can be no room for complacency despite Dunfermline’s Championship status. “I always worry,” smirked Levein.
“We’re away from home against a team who are doing well and last year when we played Dunfermline, we drew and lost on penalties [in the Betfred Cup]. There are enough warnings there for me to continue to be worried.
“I have watched a lot of footage and they have started well. They had four wins in the cup and beat Dundee. There was a reverse on Saturday [against Ross County] but they beat Dundee United and they are in a good place. I know Allan Johnston really well and Sandy Clark and they are both real football men. They will have Dunfermline ready for this game.”
More than 4,500 Hearts fans are also ready after selling out the away sections at East End Park. They have welcomed 13 new signings already and been buoyed by the strong opening to the campaign.
“I think the supporters have reacted well, particularly to the new players, and I think that is down to the fact that they have shown the desire and the enthusiasm to play for Hearts.
“They have a hunger to win and that is obvious in the way they play. Our supporters can forgive you for playing poorly but they won’t forgive you for not rolling up the sleeves and busting a gut for the jersey.
“The good thing for me is that the new lads have embraced that. There is competition for places there as well, to keep everyone on their toes.”
Teenage striker Aidan Keena is nursing a minor knock, as is midfielder Anthony McDonald. Levein otherwise has a full squad to choose from, discounting Berra’s injury and Arnaud Djoum’s ongoing recovery from a snapped Achilles tendon.
“We had a couple of knocks in the Irn-Bru Cup against Ross County the other night – McDonald and Keena. I don’t think they’re major,” explained the manager.
“Arnaud is not far away, he is in full training now and if it wasn’t a competitive game the other night I might have thrown him into the match for a half, but I didn’t want to use that competition to play one overage player.
“He should be back, he is looking really good. I’ll use the reserve league for him. I’ve been really impressed with him, so that’s a bonus.”