WITH each passing week, Andy Driver’s case for a starting berth in the Hearts team strengthens. He is fit, willing and able to put a sprinkling of Christmas cheer on an otherwise abject few weeks in the club’s history. All that seems to be required is the approval of manager Paulo Sergio.
One win in seven games is disappointing for a club with Hearts’ aspirations, particularly since only three goals have been scored during the recent malaise. Yet Driver, a winger with the added edge of a goal threat, is continually left on the periphery of the squad.
Sergio waited until the 78th minute of Saturday’s narrow defeat at Parkhead before introducing the 24-year-old as a substitute. Celtic were vulnerable and might have fallen behind had more pressure been applied through Driver or other attack-minded Hearts players. However, the winger and his fellow replacements, David Obua and Stephen Elliott, were only instructed to remove their tracksuits 12 minutes from time after Victor Wanyama’s 72nd-minute wonder strike, which ultimately decided the game.
It was Driver’s eighth appearance of the season, and only his second since the Scottish Communities League Cup defeat by Ayr United back in September. The other was a five-minute cameo role in last month’s 0-0 draw with St Mirren.
He has significantly more to offer than this bit-part role suggests. As a Hearts youth academy graduate, Driver earned a reputation as a big-game player with goals in crucial matches for Hearts and represented England at the 2009 European Under-21 Championship. Chelsea even made a tentative enquiry about him before thigh and knee injuries interrupted his progress. Those problems are now behind him and he has a clean bill of health. Only Sergio knows why he is being continually overlooked.
The situation is baffling more than just Driver. “With all my respect because I don’t like to talk about other clubs and managers, if somebody manages to play for England Under-21s, scores goals in the SPL and can play really good football, he is a player who can play and help his team,” said Csaba Laszlo, pictrued below, who coached Driver at Hearts between 2008 and 2010.
“This is always the decision of the manager and everyone has their own ideas. I was very surprised when I left Hearts (in January 2010) because, when Driver came back from injury, he never played for 90 minutes. I follow his career because he is definitely a very talented player. There is a big question behind this: why?
“I know Hearts have a lot of problems right now but for Driver it is very important to play games. I read an article where Craig Levein said Driver would be in his mind for the Scotland squad if he is playing regularly (the player qualifies through residency rules). This tells you Driver is not forgotten.
“The people with football knowledge don’t forget him and I hope he can play regularly for Hearts.
“I saw he played as substitute against Celtic for the last 12 minutes, but even in that short time he caused trouble on the left side and he created some good chances. If he is fit, Driver is capable of playing well and helping Hearts.”
Driver’s only goal this season came in Sergio’s debut match against Paksi SE in the Europa League qualifying rounds. He looked short on match practice but has worked hard in the intervening period to enhance his physical condition. The manager, judging by his actions, remains unconvinced.
The club will let Driver leave on loan since he is one of the higher earners at Tynecastle. Given recent results, it could be argued they should be holding on to him to help prompt a rejuvenation on the pitch.
Financial constraints mean November’s wages remain unpaid for first-team players but a select few, including Driver, have held talks on extending their contracts. The No. 11 is clearly valued to some degree by Hearts’ Lithuanian hierarchy, who rejected previous offers from Coventry City and Burnley for his services.
Laszlo would certainly have no hesitation in approaching Hearts for Driver and one or two others should he return to football management any time soon. “Hearts have a lot of interesting players,” continued the Hungarian. “I always say that if I get a new job then I have some players in mind who will be targets.
“I don’t like to speak about the names just now but Driver can definitely be a player who makes the difference. There are not many players like him in the SPL. You can’t ignore guys like him. When I came to Hearts in 2008 he was not a player who played continually in the first eleven because he had a lot of competition. He is not just a fast player. If you work with him, you can get a little bit more out of him. We had the problem where we did not have a striker at Hearts so we played with a system using Driver out wide to support the lone striker.
“His development was huge during that time. Driver, with Lee Wallace, Eggert Jonsson and Christophe Berra, made a lot of progress. After a couple of games, I knew I couldn’t leave those four guys out of the team. For Driver and Berra, it was important to work after training on individual skills. Later, Berra went to the English Premier League, Driver made England’s Under-21 squad and Wallace is now with Rangers. They used their time very well in the team.
“I was sorry when Driver got injured and it was difficult for him to come back. I think he came back too early and tried to play. We tried to build him up but when I left Hearts he was not ready to play competitive games. He needed more time.”
Since recovering from his latest injury problems during the summer, he has had far more time than he bargained for. Driver’s only full 90 minutes since March 2010 was the Edinburgh derby victory over Hibs four months ago. Now might be a good time to bring him in from the cold.