Craig Levein today revealed why he wants St Johnstone striker Steven MacLean at Hearts at the age of 35. Some supporters feel underwhelmed at the signing but the Tynecastle manager insists MacLean’s experience and ability will prove invaluable.
The forward is Hearts’ first new recruit ahead of next season having signed a pre-contract agreement for a two-year deal. He is expected to be the first of many. Levein has admired MacLean for years and feels he can be an astute squad player whilst using his professionalism to help emerging Riccarton youngsters.
Christophe Berra, 33, and Aaron Hughes, 38, already offer Hearts vast experience in defence. At 35, Don Cowie does likewise in midfield. MacLean’s arrival is intended to provide the attack with a seasoned campaigner who knows the Ladbrokes Premiership inside out.
Kyle Lafferty’s contract runs until summer 2019 but he is attracting interest from other clubs. Conor Sammon also has 12 months left but has been loaned to Kilmarnock and Partick Thistle in the last two seasons. It is not yet clear whether on-loan Norwich forward Steven Naismith will return to Edinburgh next season, so Levein sees MacLean as something of a safe option.
“For the last month or six weeks, I’ve been looking at the bench thinking: ‘I could do with an experienced striker.’ I’ve been putting young Euan Henderson on or Lewis Moore instead,” the manager explained to the Evening News.
“When the January transfer window closed and I couldn’t quite get what I wanted, it left us a little bit vulnerable up front in terms of numbers. All we’ve got up front is Kyle [Lafferty] and Naisy [Steven Naismith].
“Quite often I’ve turned round to look the bench thinking about what I would give for somebody who could go on and help us for the last half-hour of a match.
“Since January, I’ve been looking for an experienced player who knows the league. I’ve always really liked Steven and I think he’s a fantastic football player. He has kept himself in good condition and he’s a really good guy.
“He’s got a wee bit about him. There’s a wee bit of devilment about him. I just think that, for the next year or two, he could help us. Not by playing every week, but as somebody who is kind of a safe bet.
“We’ve had quite good experience with these older senior players in the last year or so. Things have worked quite well for us with the older players being able to pass on advice to the younger guys. Essentially, this is more just about having an experienced striker available - whether he starts or comes off the bench.”
Concerns among fans mainly centre around MacLean’s age, especially given the number of Hearts players already in their 30s. However, he has played 30 times for St Johnstone this season and 23 of those were as part of the starting line-up. He has five goals so far.
It is widely known that he tends not to play on pure synthetic surfaces like those at Kilmarnock and Hamilton Academical. Levein is unperturbed by such matters.
“Steven’s general condition is spot-on. There are no issues there,” he stressed. “He has had knee problems in the past and he often doesn’t play on astroturf but I’m not worried about that. He has managed that situation for the last however many seasons so I’ve got no concerns about that.”
For the player, the chance to play for Hearts seemed to have gone years ago. Vladimir Romanov and the Tynecastle hierarchy refused to sanction a contract for MacLean after a trial in 2010. The opportunity offered by Levein so late in his career will have boosted the striker’s morale considerably.
“I spoke to John Murray [Hearts scout] about him and John said the club tried to sign him a few years ago. I’ve always really liked him,” said Levein. “I think he’s a fantastic footballer with a good brain. I think he’ll help with little things like seeing out games in the last five or ten minutes.
“When you’re under a little bit of pressure, then the ball needs to stay forward when it goes forward.
“Or maybe we need to win fouls or stuff like that. Experienced guys know about that and those things are quite important.
“Steven knows the league and knows all the players he’s going to come up against. That means we don’t have to wait on somebody settling in. I thought he was a really good fit for us at this moment in time.
“His contract was up and St Johnstone offered him a new deal.
“His enthusiasm has been very apparent in the conversations we’ve had. I think we will get a benefit from him getting a lift, too.
“He has been at St Johnstone for a while and, as much as it’s been really good for him, this is a new challenge for him.”
MacLean spoke to the Hearts website about his conversations with Levein. Having emerged at Rangers and played for reputable English clubs like Sheffield Wednesday and Cardiff City, he is confident of making an impact in Edinburgh.
“Craig wants me to come in and play and try and help the younger ones out as well,” said this striker. “He spoke to me and said a big part of it is he wants me to come in and play and nail down a spot, and with my experience try to help the younger players as well. Hopefully they can learn from me while I’m playing.
“I’ve got plenty of experience and I’ve played at some big clubs in my time. I’ve played in different leagues as well and I’ve learned from some top players over the years.
“Hopefully I can bring that side to the younger ones and help them along the way. I’m also hopeful that I can nail down that spot in the team. I want to come here and do well, and hopefully we can finish as high up the league as possible.
“I know the league and I know everything about Hearts. I know they’ve got passionate fans and I’ve played at Tynecastle a few times. I’m really looking forward to putting the shirt on and actually playing for Hearts instead of playing against them.”