The five players who show Hearts' improvement isn't just about Liam Boyce

New manager is getting a tune out of stars previously maligned by the support

Monday, 27th January 2020, 12:11 pm
Updated Monday, 27th January 2020, 12:13 pm

Liam Boyce was yesterday's hero, he's today's hero, and he'll be the hero in the eyes of Hearts right up until Saturday's meeting with St Johnstone, where there will be real expectation he can be the hero once again.

The new signing could scarcely have asked for a better start to his Hearts career. The £150,000 transfer fee to wrestle him from Burton Albion already looks like an absolute steal, as he scored once, assisted another and generally put in the kind of performance that Hearts have been missing from their striking corps for the best part of 18 months.

Goals have been a major problem for Hearts this season. Only St Mirren had scored fewer prior to yesterday's game. Boyce not only provides a recognised, consistent goal threat at this level, his general play should also prevent Hearts from falling to pieces when Stevie Naismith is unavailable.

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Lewis Moore, Sean Clare and Craig Halkett mob Steven Naismith after Hearts equalise against Rangers. Picture: SNS

He's a massive January window signing and his play over the next four months will go a long way to deciding how nervy the finale to this campaign will be for the relegation-threatened club.

There has been praise too for Toby Sibbick. The hulking utility man filled in at both centre-midfield and left-back on his debut; his natural strength and size evident as a real asset in both areas.

And while Donis Avdijaj remained seated on the bench for Sunday's victory, manager Daniel Stendel believes the player will come good once he's fully integrated himself into the team and life in Scotland. Besides, had Hearts not been forced into making two changes for injuries he may have made an appearance.

Stendel needed to strengthen the squad in the January window and he's done just that. Two have already contributed with an expectation for more of the same to follow.

But the reinvigoration of this Hearts team could not come solely from the transfer window. There had to be an improvement from what was already there. It's been a major problem for the Tynecastle side over recent seasons and why there's been a massive overhaul of players. Underperforming players under previous managers tend not to have persevered with and worked on, but instead shipped out at the first opportunity.

Of course, some have been moved on, and quite publicly in the case of Glenn Whelan and the impending departure of former captain Christophe Berra. But with just five days of the transfer window left, it doesn't seem like there's going to be the overwhelming influx that we've witnessed in previous years.

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That's because guys who previously were playing below the level required are beginning to shine. None more so than Sean Clare.

The midfielder's career in Edinburgh looked in doubt when he was taken off in Stendel's debut and jeered by his own supporters. Seven weeks later and he's becoming one of the most important members of the team.

The improvement could partially be explained by a change in position. The St Johnstone match was the last time the 23-year-old operated in midfield, as he's played six games at right-back since then, getting better with every performance.

But Clare had filled in at right-back before under former boss Craig Levein and didn't look like the player he does now. That's because Stendel's aggressive approach to the game gets the best out of the former Sheffield Wednesday youngster.

Encouraged to get forward when possible, his quickness and galloping running style can be utilised better when charging from deep since he has more space to work with. This also makes him a natural fit in Stendel's high-pressing system, as he can attempt to disrupt the opposition high up the park and quickly get back into defensive position.

What the Rangers game also showed was his improvement in the defensive side to his game. It's hard to believe this was the same player who had such a defensive howler against Motherwell earlier in the campaign, as he showed strong positional awareness throughout and often appeared on an attacker's blindside to make a crucial intervention.

Clare isn't the only player improving. Craig Halkett's strong start to his Hearts career evaporated following his return from injury, with December's 2-0 loss to Celtic a particularly error-strewn performance. Against the other half of the Old Firm at the weekend he was outstanding, and perhaps the only player in maroon deserving of a man-of-the-match nod above Boyce.

It is perhaps no coincidence that his recovery has occurred at the same time as John Souttar's return from injury. Like Clare, the pair are exactly the type of defenders you want for Stendel's system: quick on the turn, comfortable on the football and, in Halkett's case in particular, good in last-ditch scenarios.

Then there's the rise of Lewis Moore and Euan Henderson. While question marks remain over whether the youngsters have the natural ability to be impactful Ladbrokes Premiership players for years to come, their reliability when it comes to energy and work ethic means they can play a role in this side. They may not play as many killer balls or score as many goals as the likes of Naismith or Boyce, but their enthusiasm and willingness to do exactly what the manager asks will allow others to flourish.

Even Aidy White showed a burst against Rangers that's not been apparent since his debut at the beginning of this campaign, though almost inevitably he was forced off injured.

Some things even Stendel can't change.