Hearts: An exceptional week for Robbie Neilson's European quest
No-one at Riccarton is puffing a cigar or flicking the lever to recline their leather seat. The transfer window is beginning to intensify and there is plenty work to be done.
That said, Hearts officials are entitled to pause momentarily to reflect on an exceptional week. One which might well underpin their quest for European football.
Only one player has joined thus far, defender Nathaniel Atkinson from Melbourne City, but the business of re-signing key figures is perhaps even more important than new arrivals right now.
The prospect of Stephen Kingsley or Craig Halkett refusing a contract extension and leaving did not bear thinking about at a time when John Souttar is edging towards the exit door.
Both Kingsley and Halkett committed their long-term futures to Hearts in recent days following captain Craig Gordon’s new deal on Hogmanay. As a reliable and consistent defender himself, manager Robbie Neilson will know the value of all three.
Signing up part of his team’s spine maintains continuity entering the second half of a campaign in which the Edinburgh club harbour lofty ambitions. European qualification as a newly-promoted club is a tall order, but Hearts are extremely well placed.
They hold a five-point advantage sitting third in the cinch Premiership and are on course for the Europa Conference League qualifying rounds as it stands. Their case is strengthened by keeping hold of Kingsley Halkett and Gordon. Make no mistake, there was interest in all three from clubs in England.
Factor in Atkinson and the prospective arrival of a new forward and there is cause for Hearts to be quietly satisfied. The Premiership is about to restart, allowing that European charge to resume.
“Hopefully we can finish as high up as we can. That can then open the doors to European football, which is really exciting,” Kingsley told Hearts TV after signing a new contract until 2025.
“That was a big point I wanted to stay for, to try and experience that. I haven’t done that before so if we can get there it’s something I would be really looking forward to.”
The left-sided defender joined Hearts in September 2020 after three years at Hull City which were peppered with injury problems. His career has been revitalised in maroon thanks to steady performances, improved fitness levels and some sublime free-kicks.
“I knew when I arrived, with the injury issues I had previously, it was always a case of getting game time and getting back to where I was previously. The club and the gaffer were always clear that this was a long-term project,” he added.
“We got the club back to where it needs to be. We've got targets now. The immediate future is all we're concentrating on; the job's half done, it's not finished. We're in a good position, and it's up to us to carry that on until the end of the season.”
The new contract gives all concerned peace of mind, for Kingsley is an increasingly-popular player among Tynecastle supporters. It always helps when you possess an uncanny ability to angle 25-yard free-kicks into the top corner.
Securing his services for three and a half years is an astute piece of business by the club’s sporting director, Joe Savage. “I’m glad to get it done, it's been on the cards for a little while now. It's great to finally get it over the line,” said the defender.
“I've enjoyed every minute of it. I've felt welcome since I first walked through the door. Thankfully, that's carried on and translated onto the pitch. I've felt very comfortable and put in some good performances so I'm very happy to be here.”
After a break from football, the Hearts players are now preparing to meet St Johnstone at Tynecastle on Tuesday night in their first game of the New Year. The Scottish Government’s announcement that crowd limits inside stadiums are to be lifted is an added bonus.
“It's been tough after having some time off, but it's been good to see the boys again. It takes you a wee while to get the legs going!” admitted Kingsley.
“Having the fans was obviously something I experienced for the first half of the season. I loved that and it'll be great to have them back, along with all the benefits they bring.”
With Kingsley’s new deal signed and safely filed in a Riccarton filing cabinet, Neilson and Savage are now looking at other players whose contracts are due to expire.
The Northern Irish defender Michael Smith is due an extension when he plays a set number of first-team games this season.
Getting Kingsley over the line following new deals for Halkett and Gordon is a source of contentment, however.
“It’s fantastic to get Stephen committed to Hearts for another three seasons,” said Neilson. “He’s gone from strength to strength since he arrived here and he’s undoubtedly one of the country’s top defenders. It’s a big boost for us and everyone here is delighted to get it sorted.”
Savage hinted at more new deals soon. “Stephen’s made such a big impact since joining the club and he’s a really popular figure behind the scenes,” he said. “His quality on the pitch is there for all to see and I’m sure the fans will be as happy as we are to get this deal completed.
“Stephen’s been a crucial part of the project here at Hearts and the exciting thing is that we’re only in the early stages. The club is in a strong position and there is definitely more to come.”