Ian Cathro today revealed that Tasos Avlonitis has been taken out of the firing line after being overplayed in the opening months of his Hearts career.
The Greek defender arrived as a free agent on the last day of January and, after a debut appearance as a substitute in the 4-1 win over Rangers, injuries to fellow centre-backs John Souttar and Aaron Hughes meant he ended up starting nine consecutive games in the space of two months while short of match sharpness. After Avlonitis was substituted in the 1-0 loss at St Johnstone last week and then left on the bench for last weekend’s 1-0 win over Dundee, supporters suspected he had simply been dropped after some underwhelming displays during a run of six Hearts defeats in seven matches. However, Cathro explained that the 27-year-old, who hadn’t previously played a match since turning out for Austrian side Sturm Graz in mid-May last year, ideally would not have been so heavily relied upon as he sought to get himself up to speed in a new environment.
“Every player needs time to adjust but the only thing that’s a bit different in Tasos’ case is that he came from not have played at all for seven or eight months,” Cathro told the Evening News. “He joined us to give us another option at centre-back, which we needed at that time.
“When he came in, the idea was that he’d play on occasion and we would give him time to get to his peak. But unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of players from the centre-back position so we’re very light.
“From the point of him arriving, we’ve had the situation with John and then with Aaron, which has put a lot of stress and strain on that area of the team and probably resulted in Tasos needing to play constantly before he was ready. He has been exposed to competition constantly, which has been hard for him.”
With Krystian Nowak the only other fit senior centre-back at Hearts, Cathro turned to midfielder Prince Buaben when he decided to take Avlonitis out of the side. The Ghanaian impressed in defence against Dundee, but Cathro insists the former Olympiakos defender, whose short-term deal expires at the end of the season, can still flourish at Hearts. We needed another option and Prince gives us that – he did well on Saturday,” said the head coach. “Tasos will look to improve his level of performance, as will everyone. But we factor in that he’s been asked to play a lot of games in a short period of time, which was never the idea. But, of course, football creates these problems and we need to deal with them. There’s no reason to suggest we won’t see Tasos again this season. We have a competitive squad, and everybody will be working on a daily basis to make sure they’re ready to help the team.”
In another change to the Hearts defence on Saturday, homegrown right-back Liam Smith was given his first start since the 4-0 defeat at Celtic Park in January as Slovenian internationalist Andraz Struna, who had been keeping the 20-year-old out of the team, switched to left-back in the absence of the injured Lennard Sowah. “Liam managed his way through the game well,” said Cathro. “He gives us some acceleration when we’re switching to the right side. He got into some good high positions that helped us and he was okay in possession of the ball. He had some errors creeping in as the game went on but that’s part of his development.”