Craig Levein has resolved to address Hearts’ ongoing left-back problem as injury-hit Ashley Smith-Brown prepares to terminate his season-long loan early and return to parent club Manchester City.
The 21-year-old was signed in the summer to fill a role in which Juwon Oshaniwa, Faycal Rherras and Lennard Sowah had all failed to make an impact over the previous two seasons. However, Smith-Brown has managed only three appearances for Hearts due to a string of fitness issues and hasn’t featured since the 1-1 draw away to Partick Thistle more than three months ago.
His absence has meant Hearts have been operating primarily with right-backs Jamie Brandon and Michael Smith at left-back this season, while Rafal Grzelak has also appeared there to underwhelming effect.
Although Smith-Brown is nearing a return, Hearts know they can’t depend on the player staying fit for the second half of the season, so he is expected to leave the club imminently.
Levein will look to sign a new left-back on a short-term basis in the upcoming transfer window, with a view to finding a permanent solution in the summer. “We need a left-back,” said the manager. “The rest of the defence is fine – Christophe Berra, John Souttar, Aaron Hughes plus the right-backs (Smith, Connor Randall and Brandon) – but it’s pretty obvious we need a left-back.
“Some of the situations with the left-backs looked good on paper. Juwon had played in the World Cup and looked a brilliant signing for us. Faycal then came in and that didn’t work. It’s the one thing we need to get sorted on a permanent basis. I’m not hopeful of getting that done permanently in this window. It’s something we might do until the end of the season, maybe a loan, to give ourselves more time to get that sorted in the summer.”
Meanwhile, Jamie Walker may have kicked his last ball for Hearts after being ruled out of today’s match away to Aberdeen with a knee problem sustained early in Wednesday’s draw with Hibs. The midfielder has been lined up to join Wigan Athletic in the upcoming transfer window, assuming there is no serious damage done to his knee, with Jack Byrne likely to be heading in the opposite direction, as revealed by the Evening News this week.
“There’s been some interest in Jamie from Wigan but I honestly couldn’t tell you if Jack would be part of that deal,” said Levein. “It’s quite complicated, and obviously it’s even more complicated now that Jamie’s hurt his knee. I don’t know how any injury would effect things because discussions haven’t involved that. There’s nothing done or decided - we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Walker and Smith-Brown are among several Hearts players set to miss today’s trip to Aberdeen. Ross Callachan, Randall, Prince Buaben, Arnaud Djoum, Malaury Martin and Grzelak are among the others expected to miss out. “I’ve also got the added problem in that I would have liked to rest the older ones like Don and Kyle after Wednesday, but needs must,” said Levein. “I’ve got an idea what system I’d like to play but personnel is a problem.”