Craig Levein insists Hearts are not preparing to sell top scorer Kyle Lafferty this summer.
The Tynecastle side have already agreed pre-contracts with 23-year-old Cambridge United forward Uche Ikpeazu and 35-year-old St Johnstone attacker Steven MacLean, leading to some speculation that the Northern Irishman, who was the subject of interest from China in January, may be heading for the exit at the end of the season
Lafferty, who has become a fans’ favourite in his first campaign at Hearts after scoring 17 goals, is under contract for another year and the 30-year-old this week used an emoji on Twitter to rubbish the suggestion from a supporter that his departure had already been lined up.
Manager Levein is adamant the club have no plans to cash in on the popular striker. “I anticipate Kyle being here next season, I certainly hope he is,” he said. “I don’t know what the summer will bring but nobody has contacted me about him since January. There were a couple of teams interested in January but nobody actually made a firm offer. He seems happy here.”
Meanwhile, Levein admits that he has signed one tried-and-tested striker this week in the shape of MacLean and another who represents a gamble in Ikpeazu. Hearts have had mixed results with their recruitment over the past few seasons and the manager explained that any player who has never played in the Scottish Premiership before, such as Ikpeazu, represents a risk.
“We try very hard to look at the background of every player to tell if they’ll be able to handle playing for Hearts and playing at Tynecastle,” he explained. “With guys like Steven MacLean, I don’t need to question whether he can play at Tynecastle because he’s done it, and I think he’ll be even better with the crowd behind him rather than against him.
“With Uche, we’ll need to wait and see, but that’s the exciting thing. He’s a certain type of player and if it works, I think he’ll be a huge hit up here. It might not work, but that’s the gamble you take with every signing you make, particularly ones you don’t know so well and who haven’t played in the league. The safest thing a lot of the time is to get other players in who have been successful at other clubs in the league, like Steven, who I’m 90 per cent sure will do really well for us.”
Other clubs in Scotland, particularly Motherwell, have had notable success by plundering the lower leagues in England, but Levein explained that it can be harder for the bigger clubs in Scotland to find success with this approach since many players struggle to adapt to the increased pressure, intensity and expectation levels. After the signing of Cole Stockton from Tranmere Rovers last summer didn’t work out, Levein is hopeful that Ikpeazu, who has been playing in England’s League Two, can have a similar impact to strikers like Louis Moult and Curtis Main, who both hit the ground running at Fir Park.
“Motherwell have had a great deal of success with getting guys from the English lower leagues, like Louis Moult and Curtis Main,” said Levein. “Whether they could have come to a bigger club immediately, I don’t know. Probably because of the mentality of those players they could have done, but it often depends if you’re bringing up somebody who’s played a lot of games, or somebody who’s still a bit untested.
“The problem is that to get players for good value, you have to take a risk. You can’t wait until they’ve established themselves or you won’t be able to afford them. The very nature of what we’re trying to do means we’ve got to take risks, so there will always be some that don’t work out. We try to minimise the chance of that. Recently we’ve brought in more players who would appear to understand the league a lot better, but nobody gets it right all the time.”