Robbie Neilson today revealed plans to strengthen Hearts’ squad with a new striker and possibly a left-sided midfielder.
The departures of Morgaro Gomis and Billy King will create space and Neilson is already planning to replenish if he can source the right players. He is already assessing a centre-back to replace Jordan McGhee, who joined Middlesbrough on loan last week, with Northern Ireland international centre-back Liam Donnelly currently on trial at Riccarton.
Gomis joined the Malaysian club Kelantan, whilst King is finalising a season-long loan move to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Neilson, the Hearts head coach, is keen to add another striker to compete with Conor Sammon and Juanma Delgado. A left midfielder is also on his agenda.
“There may be another two, depending how things go,” he said when asked about further new recruits joining Sammon, Faycal Rherras, Robbie Muirhead and Viktor Noring. “I’d like to get another striker in but we need a let-sided player as well. That’s the two positions I’m looking at right now.
“We’re still looking, there are options out there. We’ve got our eyes on a couple but it’s trying to get them in. We also have to make sure they’re players who will make a difference here. There are a couple we’re trying to push. There’s loads of time and I don’t want to rush into it. I’m happy with what I’ve got at the moment. Anyone who comes in will need to be a really good player.”
Neilson also won’t rush his decision on whether to offer Donnelly a deal at Hearts. “I thought he did okay on Saturday in the friendly against Dunfermline,” said Neilson. “We’re going to take a look at him this week and then make a decision on him.”
Experienced midfielder Don Cowie was expected to travel with the Hearts squad to Malta for tomorrow’s Europa League second qualifying round, first leg, against Birkirkara. He missed the first round against Infonet of Estonia due to injury.
“I didn’t put him in the squad for the first round because he had an issue with his calf,” explained Neilson. “We were trying to nurse him back in but he’s played two 90 minutes in friendlies and done well. I thought, on Saturday, he was one of the ones who pushed for a game on Thursday. He’ll definitely be in the plans. It strengthens our hand. He’s got good experience, he’s played in big games so there will be no issue at all with putting him in.”
Neilson stressed that one of Hearts’ biggest challenges will be coping with temperatures close to 90 degrees fahrenheit in Malta. “Going over there in the heat is going to be very difficult. It’s hard for us to prepare for it with a Scottish summer when it’s raining outside and it’s ten degrees. It’s going to be a big difference when it’s 85 or 90 degrees when we play.
“If you watch games over there, it is a very slow, low tempo. It comes to life for a couple of minutes and then dies down again. It is not like Scottish football. We need to understand that and get used to the way it is played. We need to get used to having water breaks halfway through a half. We need to try and deal with it.”
Despite being unseeded, Birkirkara beat the seeded Bosnian club Siroki Brijeg 3-1 on aggregate in the first qualifying round. “If you saw the Siroki game, Birkirkara scored just after the water break, about ten seconds after it. The Siroki players were still getting back on the pitch and were wondering what was going on, bang, goal. Game over.
“It is something we need to make sure we are wary of, if we do come off we are ready to get straight back into the game. You just have to look at the result last year when Birkirkara took West Ham to penalties. That was a phenomenal result for a team from Malta. We know it will be a tough one.”
Investment from president Adrian Delia has allowed Birirkara’s Croatian head coach Drazen Besek to recruit several experienced players. Besek’s side contains Slovakians, Slovenians, Croatians and South Americans. Neilson sees them as a genuine danger despite Hearts being the seeded team in the tie.
“Birkirkara have some good players there,” he said. “They have a guy who has put some money in. It is the same with all these nations, there are always one or two teams in each country with a backer who will put good money in. When they start doing that, obviously they are going to bring in good players.
“You can take any team and, if you have an owner who puts in £10million, then you have a good team. There are people willing to do that in every country – look at the Estonian team we played against, there was someone putting in money there. There’s Maltese teams where there are people putting money in. As soon as someone does that, it makes it difficult to compete against.”