Cove Rangers might wonder if dressing-rooms at their new Balmoral Stadium will be able to accommodate the bloated Hearts squad tomorrow. Fear not, for manager Craig Levein will only take players ready and in form to Aberdeen for their first Betfred League Cup tie.
Hearts have completed 11 new signings so far this summer, with No.12 to come in the shape of American goalkeeper Kevin Silva. Levein is still unsure about exactly who will slot in and where after five pre-season friendlies, but he will take no chances as competitive action begins with the League Cup group phase.
The 2600-capacity Balmoral Stadium contains a humble main stand with a small seating area. It replaces Allan Park, fully three years since Rangers vacated the old venue in Cove Bay. The new away dressing room may not exactly be sprawling in size but Levein is bringing only a selected squad north. There should be no overspill into the corridor.
His starting line-up will be what he feels is the strongest available, with several experienced internationalists due to feature. “When you start a season, it’s important your big characters are up to speed. We can carry other things if that’s the case,” said the manager.
“We will be relying heavily on Christophe Berra, John Souttar, big Bobby [Zlamal] in goals, Kyle Lafferty and Steven MacLean and boys like that who have been over the course before.” Other likely starters are left-back Ben Garuccio, centre-back Peter Haring, plus midfielders Olly Lee and Oliver Bozanic.
“We have loads of options,” continued Levein. “People are finding their place in the pecking order after pre-season. I’m pretty much looking to be using the players I feel have done well in the games. We have a lot of players in. I’ve just looked at who is doing well in training and who is doing well in games. I’ll be playing the players who are in form.
“It might be some of the young ones playing, it might be older ones. It’s just who I feel is up to speed quicker. Everybody gets there at different times. I’m excited. There’s always a feeling of uncertainty when you bring so many players in. It takes time to get to know them as people, their strengths and weaknesses, and find out how emotional they are. That’s all going on just now and I’m learning more about them all the time.”
Perhaps influencing Levein’s no-risk policy to some extent are memories of Hearts’ Betfred Cup campaign last year. As director of football, he sat in the stand watching head coach Ian Cathro suffer as the Edinburgh club failed to progress from a group containing East Fife, Elgin City Peterhead, and Dunfermline.
That ultimately cost Cathro his job and led to Levein stepping into the managerial role once again. Now it is his neck on the line and nothing will be left to chance in Betfred Cup group games against Cove Rangers, Raith Rovers, Cowdenbeath or Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
“This, the Scottish Cup and the league are three major competitions. We can’t and won’t take any of those lightly,” said Levein. “We will put our strongest team out, barring injury or someone needing rested, in all these games. We have two away matches before we’re back at Tynecastle. We are wary, of course, and we want to do well.
“We are at a slight disadvantage in that all of the teams have a full week’s rest before we play them. We’re completely focused on doing well in this tournament. It’s really important.”
Just as League Cup disappointment 12 months ago made for an awkward start to the campaign, progress this year would set Hearts up well. “Absolutely, it sets the tone,” said Levein.
“We’ve worked hard in training and done well in some of the matches. We aren’t completely up to speed. I think these four games will get us closer to firing on all cylinders. We’ve certainly done enough preparation to be ready to go.
“Once I know more about everybody, it’s easier to judge the levels of competition in the squad. Right now I’m unsure about certain players and exactly what they can do for us. That will take a bit of time. With having more players, that in itself says we have better cover and balance than at any point last season.”
Levein’s thorough planning for the competitive season starting saw him head to the Highlands on Saturday to watch Inverness and Cove Rangers kick the group off. His assistant, Austin MacPhee, took in Raith against Cowdenbeath in Methil.
“I think it was really important,” said Levein. “I’ve seen Cove twice now and I’ve now seen Inverness, which will also be beneficial. I’ll see them again against Cowdenbeath on Tuesday. I can see why Cove won the Highland League in two of the last three years. They’re a good footballing team with players who could still be playing in the professional league rather than the Highland League.
“I’ve got a handle on their system and who plays where, so that helps when we’re talking to our players about this game tomorrow.
“They played against Aberdeen on Sunday to open their new ground. They’ve been away for three years so it will be a big thing for them to get into their own stadium. They will feel good and we have to be wary of that.”