Fleeting glimpses have shown the potential of Esmael Goncalves and Kyle Lafferty as a bustling Hearts strike partnership. Sensing they are close to firing on all cylinders, Goncalves insists it won’t be long until they explode.
Lafferty has seven goals in 12 appearances this season after arriving at Tynecastle during the summer. Goncalves, a January transfer window signing, has three goals from his 12 outings this term. Only a handful of times have both men been paired together in attack to offer a hint of their joint capabilities.
Signs are they already have a mutual understanding and rapport – Lafferty’s energy, physical presence and ruthless finishing complemented by Goncalves’ movement and creativity. The Northern Irishman ignored his recently-revealed gambling addiction to score Hearts’ goal in Saturday’s frustrating 2-1 defeat by Dundee at Dens Park. His Portuguese colleague hit the crossbar and was denied by the opposition goalkeeper, Scott Bain, on another occasion.
Their partnership is still in its infancy but, ever since their first day training together at Riccarton back in June, the two forwards seemed to connect. Goncalves explained that they will only get better as the season progresses.
“Me and Kyle understand each other well and we have a good partnership,” Goncalves told the Evening News. “Sometimes in a game it’s difficult for the team to find us, but when they can find us you see what me and Kyle can do. When the team is playing better, me and Kyle will explode.
“We speak all through the game. When he is in the middle I go to the right or left, and vice versa. We just feel it, we feel that bond with each other. It’s a natural thing. From the first day we started training together, we understood each other. It was like this from the first moment. It’s very easy to play with Kyle.”
Lafferty’s popularity with the Hearts support has helped him settle in Edinburgh despite his well-publicised gambling issue. Goncalves is also idolised as mercurial type who can produce the unexpected at any time in a match.
Both men have been deployed as a lone forward at different times this season, but their preference is clearly to play together as a two-pronged attack. “Of course, it’s easier for any striker to have a partner,” said Goncalves.
“When you play alone up front, like I did in our game against Partick Thistle a couple of weeks ago, it’s very difficult. You just fight for the balls all the time. It might already be a lost ball but you must still fight. With two strikers, it helps and you have more chance to beat the other team’s defence.”
At 6ft 4ins tall, Lafferty is just the type of dynamic, determined assistant any striker would want. He is now on international duty with his country as Michael O’Neill’s side challenge for a place at next summer’s World Cup finals in Russia. Goncalves will be hoping he returns unscathed.
“It’s very good that we understand each other so well. To have a player like Kyle beside me is amazing,” he added. “He understands me and what I’m going to do before I think about what I’m going to do. He already knows, so that’s great for me. I’m looking forward to playing more games with him for Hearts.”
The two strikers left Tayside on Saturday ruing some poor defending which cost their team at least a point. Kerr Waddell’s two free headers at corner-kicks exposed some woeful marking and resulted in Craig Levein’s first defeat since returning as Hearts manager.
“Of course it’s frustrating to lose to two goals from corners like this. They couldn’t beat us in a normal game,” said Goncalves. “Losing in the last minute when we were fighting to win is really hard and we showed our frustration in the dressing room. I think we were right to do that. For us, it’s a lesson and we must learn from our mistakes. We have to keep working on set-pieces to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Hearts now have two weeks to digest the hurt and anger before resuming Ladbrokes Premiership duties against Ross County in Dingwall.
“We have some time off now so we will take a rest and think about our mistakes. When we come back, we will be working hard again,” said Goncalves. “I will go to Portugal to visit family and take some time away from think about all of this.”
Perhaps crucially, Hearts’ run of away matches ends after Dingwall. They then begin a welcome period of 11 fixtures out of 12 in Edinburgh. Eight of those are due to take place at the redeveloped Tynecastle.
“It is very important that we will soon start to play at Tynecastle,” said Goncalves. “We have to make sure there is not too much space between us and the top four teams. If we keep that gap to maybe three or four points, I think that’s not bad.
“When we are at home it will be a different story. If we are still in touch with the top teams, then when we play at Tynecastle with all the fans, I think we are going to hurt teams.”