Synergised Josh Ginnelly and Barrie McKay help cover firepower issue at Hearts
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Tuesday night’s synergy between Barrie McKay and Josh Ginnelly was therefore a welcome sight for anyone of a maroon persuasion. With Boyce on the bench not quite fully fit after a persistent calf injury, the diminutive attacking duo combined to see off St Johnstone.
McKay’s two assists were superbly finished by Ginnelly to secure a timely 2-0 victory as the cinch Premiership returned from its winter break. The result, allied to Motherwell’s defeat at Ross County, propelled Hearts eight points clear in third place.
The pressure on Boyce has been immense all season, his 11-goal contribution leaving colleagues trailing in the scoring charts. Closest to the Northern Irish striker is defender Stephen Kingsley with four – three of which were direct free-kicks.
Boyce’s presence, link-up play and natural scorer’s instinct aren’t replicated by anyone else in the Riccarton first-team squad right now. Hence the search for at least one new striker before the January transfer window closes.
McKay and Ginnelly offer a different type of attacking threat, plus a clear understanding of the other’s wavelength and thought process. McKay’s movement and roaming in pockets of space make him difficult to mark, and when in possession he can carve open any defence with one pass or cross.
Ginnelly’s turn of speed and composed finishing are, in many ways, an ideal foil. The Englishman can operate out wide or centrally, allowing him to connect more with the free-running McKay. Both men dovetailed perfectly against St Johnstone.
Injuries have limited Ginnelly’s opportunities to benefit from McKay’s creativity this term, but both have the potential to become a devastating Hearts combination during the second half of the season.
“No one has really seen anything from Baz yet. That's how good he is. He's a massive player for us,” said Ginnelly. “I'll probably get some headlines after the goals, but I'll give them all to him. He's a brilliant player and he turned it on. Honestly, Baz can do anything with the ball. He's going to be massive for us.
“I’ve played as a striker a few times this season. It’s tough and because of my build and that I am playing against 6ft 5in meatheads, so obviously it's tough when we can't get the ball behind the defence.
“When they sit in like St Johnstone did in the first half, it can be tough for me to receive the ball with back to goal because that's not my game. But if it is something the gaffer needs me to do, then I am more than happy to do it.”
Manager Robbie Neilson used Ginnelly at centre-forward earlier in the campaign and the player’s double on Tuesday underlined his finishing prowess. “We were going into the game missing a wee bit of firepower up there,” conceded Neilson.
“We didn't have a massive number of options off the bench in terms of attackers. That's why we brought Aaron McEneff on as a striker and Andy Halliday on as a left-sided attacking midfielder. We are hopeful of getting a few back for the weekend.”
Tuesday’s result is a huge tonic for Hearts’ European aspirations. Increasing the gap to fourth-placed Motherwell is as much a psychological advantage as it is points on the board. It is also helpful seeing players like Ginnelly rediscover their scoring touch entering a critical period of the campaign.
Hearts’ next four league games could well underpin their entire season if positive results are achieved. “It was a very important night for us on Tuesday,” said Neilson. “We had a really good start to the season, then a couple of weeks off, and you need to hit the ground running when you come back.
“We knew three points against St Johnstone would set us up well no matter what other teams did. We have a Scottish Cup game on Saturday but after that we play Celtic, Motherwell, Hibs then Rangers.
“These are some massive games against teams sitting second, fourth and first respectively. It was really vital to get three points against St Johnstone and go into these games in good form.”
Ginnelly agreed, knowing he had staked a claim to play an integral part in those fixtures. “It's good to start the new year the way we wanted to. It's a massive three points for us and we deserved it,” he acknowledged.
He wasn’t the only Hearts player to reach peak performance levels in the first game back. Michael Smith enjoyed an outstanding evening at right wing-back while new signing Nathaniel Atkinson watched from the bench.
The Australian will gradually assimilate to life in Scotland after Hearts paid an undisclosed fee to bring him to Europe from Melbourne City. He is expected to challenge for Smith’s position in time, yet the 33-year-old will certainly not be ousted easily.
“Nat has to get himself up and running,” explained Neilson. “He hasn't done a lot of training recently. He needs to show he is fit and try to get himself in the team. I think he will be a real asset for us.
“What it does is force everyone else to increase their game. If you are in that position and there is a new player waiting behind you, then you need to stay in good form.”