It was a position of need the club wanted to reinforce in the summer transfer window but one, and arguably the only one, they didn’t manage to address. They were content to go into the campaign with Liam Boyce and Armand Gnanduillet as the only natural options through the centre, backed up by a myriad of attacking-midfielders, instead of adding quantity over quality.
The last few months have necessitated a step up in their search and expect them to be more aggressive in pursuing an alternative across the rest of this month.
Gnanduillet could well have played his last game for the club. Even though Boyce missed each of the last two fixtures, the Frenchman didn’t see a single second of action as Ben Woodburn, more a midfielder than a striker, was utilised in an unorthodox role for the Liverpool loanee. Neilson no longer seems to trust Gnanduillet.
The towering forward has shown, in flashes, the quality which persuaded Hearts to sign him in last year’s transfer window. He had effective cameos off the bench at St Mirren and Dundee United, including scoring his only goal of the season in the latter, while he was unfortunate not to get on the scoresheet in either the trip to Ross County or St Johnstone, where he was a menacing presence. But on too many occasions he’s been ineffective or, worse, looked a little disinterested.
He is certainly a footballer who appears to take rejection to heart, as evidenced by him walking down the tunnel at both Dens Park and Tynecastle across Hearts’ last two matches after the final substitution was made and it was clear he wouldn’t be getting on. It’s one thing to sit on the bench silently fuming – or even complaining to club-mates. It’s another to quite literally turn your back on the team.
Both the club and player are said to be exploring options for him to leave Gorgie Road in January with clubs south of the border, most notably Salford City, said to be interested. With his contract up at the end of the campaign there doesn’t appear to be much standing in the way of a swift exit.
It may even be a case that Hearts have to recruit more than one forward in the window, though the option is there to recall Euan Henderson from his loan at Alloa Athletic. The youngster showed a bit of promise towards the tail-end of last season and it was a bit of a surprise to see the club allow him to leave on a temporary basis during the summer. He’s since scored 11 goals in 15 appearances for a not-very-good Alloa team in the third tier.
Any new striker signing is unlikely to come from the SPFL. There just aren’t a lot of candidates who stand out – at least those who wouldn’t be too costly or complicated to recruit – as there’s a dearth of quality goalscorers in the Premiership, while the leading marksman in the Championship, Michael McKenna, is a part-time No.10.
Of the most high-profile players on expiring deals, Leigh Griffiths and Jason Cummings are certain no-no’s; Jermain Defoe is about 57 and would be too expensive anyway, and Callum Hendry’s career has fallen off a cliff. Ex-Jambo Tony Watt would have been an interesting addition, especially as someone who can play across the front three, but Neilson isn’t keen on a reunion with the player he managed in 2016, even if the Motherwell man has greatly matured in the time since. There may be a curiosity in Dundee United’s 22-year-old versatile attacker Louis Appere, whom Neilson worked successfully with at Tannadice, but he’s yet to show anything approaching the necessary consistency required at the top-flight level.
Some fans may wish former favourite Kyle Lafferty to return for a second spell after the well-travelled Northern Irishman (“without rules”) recently left Anorthosis Famagusta, but it’s difficult to imagine Neilson opting for a 34-year-old with a chequered past who’s been notoriously difficult to manage. Hearts have a humble, hard-working and easy-to-coach squad at the moment. They won’t want to risk upsetting the apple cart, even if it’s for a player who tore up the Premiership just last season in his three-month stint with Kilmarnock.
So the player will most likely come from England or abroad, with there already being reported interest in Japanese forward Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa. The 23-year-old is a quick, direct attacker who would suit the 3-4-3 system deployed by the club for the majority of this season. He would also be a better fit to start in the same team as Boyce than Gnanduillet was.
Pace is still a rare commodity in this Hearts team with only Josh Ginnelly possessing the kind of speed which stretches opposing defences. But they could also do with a target man sort – in the Gnanduillet mould but an upgrade – someone to bring on at the end of games when a lead is needing protected and a forward capable of taking pressure off the defence. Boyce can do the job, but often tires out having spent the previous 75 minutes both providing the physical edge in leading the line and constantly looking for gaps in the opposing back-line to exploit as the team’s clear, and only consistent, goal threat.
With a five-point gap, the best goalkeeper in the league, a robust defence, a steely midfield and a plethora of creative options, adding another top-notch striker to compliment Boyce would be the final piece of the puzzle in the race to finish third and potentially earn regular group-stage European football next term.