Craig Levein has praised the wholehearted Connor Randall for establishing himself as a key man at Hearts in recent months.
After a slow start to his Tynecastle career, when he was occasionally used in central midfield, the on-loan Liverpool player’s energetic displays at right-back and right-wing-back have been a notable feature of his team’s recent seven-game run without conceding a goal.
The manager has been impressed with the 22-year-old’s form and the manner in which he has embraced being at Hearts since joining in the summer on a season-long loan. “I’ve been pleased with Connor,” Levein told the Evening News ahead of Wednesday evening’s Premiership trip to Hamilton Accies. “He’s low maintenance. He’s a decent lad who works really hard. He’s bought into the culture of the club. I’ve been really excited by how he’s grasped what this club is about. He’s fitted in so well. He’s a tough boy with determination and energy. He wears his heart on his sleeve and gives you everything he’s got. I like that – he’s my type of player.”
Randall is currently the first choice of a batch of three right-backs which Levein believes is as strong as Hearts have had in recent memory. “At right-back, I don’t think we’ve ever been better off in terms of having Connor, Michael Smith and Jamie Brandon,” said the manager.
The strength at right-back is mirrored in central defence where Hearts have been well served by Christophe Berra, John Souttar and – when fit – the 38-year-old Aaron Hughes. Levein took the opportunity to play all three of his main centre-backs against Hibs in a 3-4-3 on Sunday, and is open to doing so again if all three are fit.
“I don’t think whether we play three or four at the back makes a lot of difference to us,” said Levein. “We play three in certain games to use Aaron’s experience but Aaron’s 38 so he’s not going to play every game.”
Another vital member of Hearts’ rearguard is Jon McLaughlin, who is widely deemed to have been the standout goalkeeper in the Scottish Premiership this season. The 30-year-old, who has kept ten clean sheets in 19 games for Hearts, is out of contract this season. Levein spoke last month of a desire to extend the former Burton Albion goalkeeper’s deal. Asked if there had been any movement on that front, he said: “Not yet. Jon and I have had a chat and he’s going to come back to me, and then we’ll see where we are,” said the manager.
Levein has several selection dilemmas for Wednesday night’s trip to Lanarkshire. Esmael Goncalves is likely to miss out with a knock, while fellow striker Kyle Lafferty is still suspended. In addition, there are a host of players Levein would rather not rush back into action so soon after Sunday’s Edinburgh derby exertions.
“Isma got a knock on Saturday but other than that I don’t think anyone’s actually injured,” said a Levein. “We have some major concerns over the likes of Arnaud Djoum, who hasn’t played much lately apart from on Sunday. We’d like to give Harry Cochrane a rest at some point because he’s played a lot of games. Steven Naismith played his first game for a while on Sunday so in an ideal world we’d just use him from the bench but we’re toiling a bit for bodies, particularly in midfield. Aaron Hughes is another one I’ll have to think about. Demetri Mitchell has just played only his second-ever proper match against men and he’s going to very quickly find himself on the field again at Hamilton. If I had the luxury, I’d definitely consider whether or not to play him.
“I’m thinking I’m going to have to play people who aren’t 100 per cent. I normally name the team the day before a game but I’m going to wait and see how everybody is when they come in before the game and then make a decision. I’ve got some idea of what Hamilton will do so we’ll put the two things together and come up with something. It’s really important that, after the high of beating Hibs, we don’t stumble against Hamilton. We’ve always found it a hard place to go.”