Hearts ace Craig Halkett on Scotland ambition, building a centre-back relationship with Mihai Popescu and getting off to a flyer

There were a few eyebrows raised when Hearts boss Robbie Neilson tipped centre-back Craig Halkett for a Scotland call-up earlier this week.

By Joel Sked
Friday, 16th October 2020, 7:00 am
Halkett and Mihai Popescu are building a burgeoning partnership. Picture: SNS
Halkett and Mihai Popescu are building a burgeoning partnership. Picture: SNS

Steve Clarke’s men had just kept their second of three clean sheets in a week. Aberdeen's 33-year-old defender Andrew Considine had earned his first ever cap, Hibs’ right-back-come-centre-back Paul McGinn had been called up and Halkett’s former Livingston team-mate Declan Gallagher was excellent in the win over Slovakia.

Rewind 18 months or so and Livingston’s impressive defence from their first season back in the top-flight was on its way to being decimated.

Hearts had announced they were signing Halkett and Gallagher had opted for Motherwell ahead of St Johnstone. At the time the former seemed on the cusp of being brought into the international fold, while the latter was an unlikely consideration despite his excellent form for Livi.

Sign up to our Hearts newsletter

A move to Tynecastle, turning out for a more prestigious club with grander ambitions than their Lothian rivals seemed to be the perfect springboard to reach that goal. Unfortunately for Halkett, a difficult season in Gorgie saw Gallagher overtake him having gone from strength to strength at Fir Park and now the holder of five international caps.

Flower of Scotland

"I'm delighted for him, we were team-mates for a few years and he’s still a good friend, we keep in touch a lot,” Halkett said.

“He has been outstanding, especially these last three games. He has been one of the stands out in keeping three clean sheets.

Craig Halkett has been tipped for Scotland recognition by manager Robbie Neilson. Picture: SNS

"I could not be more happy for him.”

Halkett can take inspiration from his friend and former colleague, as well as Considine. Gallagher was 28 when he won his first cap. The 25-year-old Hearts ace has time on his side, plus the determination of his manager to help him achieve that goal.

He said: "One of the boys mentioned the gaffer’s comments, you like to see your manager speaking highly of you.

"On a personal note it’s something I would love to do in my career. It is about getting the head down and performing well week-in, week-out and seeing what happens.”

While there is currently plenty of competition, Halkett, despite slumming it in the Championship, won’t be forgotten, especially with Steven Naismith and Craig Gordon as team-mates.

The player is well aware though, that performances and standards at Tynecastle have to be greatly improved upon after last season's disastrous league campaign.

The centre-back relationship

No one played more minutes for the team than Halkett. His transition from Livingston to Hearts, however, wasn't helped by a knee ligament injury and a range of different centre-back partners. Whether in a back four or back three, he played alongside five different players.

“It was difficult,” he admitted. “I came, signed for a massive club. I don't think anyone, even myself, expected us to be where we were.

"Obviously that's on us as players, our shoulders. It was our performances, our games, not winning many points put us in that position so it was difficult, a hard one to take.

"It's been a long time, five months off so I had time to sit and dwell and think about it. Now it's just about the season ahead.

“It’s hard sometimes [different partners], at Livingston we had a settled back three and played over a hundred games together, it wasn’t the case last year.

"On a personal note you need to knuckle down and concentrate on your performances and make sure you’re doing your job. This year we have more of a settled team.”

With Christophe Berra and John Souttar out injured, a burgeoning partnership is being formed with summer signing Mihai Popescu.

Halkett is pleased with how the relationship is developing with the Romanian and is confident there are still levels to reach as the team look to shore up defensively, improving on the concession of 52 goals in 30 league games last campaign.

“When he first came in he had to self-isolate for a couple of weeks," he said. “I think he’ll say himself he is maybe a week or so away from being fully fit and since he’s come in he’s done well.

"I speak to him a lot in training and I feel we have a good relationship so I’m looking forward to the season ahead.”

Christmas before you know it

With three of the four Betfred Cup games out of the way, plus a lengthy break, the focus is now on getting off to a flyer in the Championship, starting with Dundee tonight at Tynecastle.

This season, more than any other, a fast start is important with the truncated 27-game campaign.

"Sometimes you forget that, Halkett said. “We started the season late and the season is cut shorter so that makes the winning start a bit more important.

"You start, four or fives games under your belt and next thing you know it is Christmas and New Year time coming around. I think to go and start well and get as many points as possible will be the target.

"We know last year wasn't good enough, nowhere near the standards we set at this football club. Last year we weren't winning anywhere near enough games.

"It has to be the opposite this year, we have to try and win every single game. It's just about getting into that feeling of winning games confidently and making teams fear coming to play against us and know it will be tough to take points away from us.”

He added: “I think it's just about hitting the ground running. We've done it well in the cup games, we've won all three games. In spells performances could have been better but at the start we wanted to win the games and we did that. I think we just need to emulate that into the league format and try and win the first few games and make teams know we're here to do the business.”

Read More

Read More
Hearts v Dundee: team news, starting XI, how to watch, match odds

The Edinburgh Evening News is offering an excellent 15% discount for our sports subscription service up until midnight on Friday. Click here and use the code SPORTS15 to take advantage of this limited deal.