Hearts are just 270 minutes from potential Scottish Cup glory but they will likely have to do most of it without Steven Naismith. Joel Sked looks at who could emerge into the void.
In years to come, the 2018-2019 campaign will be remembered as the injury season. Come the end, Hearts’ key players will have missed well over 100 games this term combined.
The news that Steven Naismith is set to miss between eight and ten weeks of action is the latest kick in the teeth for the fans and Craig Levein.
It must give the feeling that they are living their own version of Groundhog Day but instead of Sonny & Cher, a puddle and Punxsutawney Phil it is cartilage, ligaments and injury tables.
Injuries have been a key narrative as to how the season has unfolded for Hearts. Top of the league at the start of November, the team have tumbled down the table. Even with key players returning the search for that early-season fluency and verve continues.
New pieces have been added, old pieces tweaked but the standard of performance which brought about eight league wins from the opening ten games has been conspicuous by its absence. It’s perhaps not been helped by a lack of consistency with selection - Hearts have started with the same team in consecutive games just twice all season.
The accusations that, in Steven Naismith, Hearts are too reliant on one individual were strengthened after the 1-1 draw with Partick Thistle in the Scottish Cup quarter-final on Monday, even if he started and finished the home draws with Livingston and St Mirren and defeat at Motherwell.
The Scotland internationalist’s ten league goals have been worth eight points. But more than that is his general influence over the team’s play, his intelligence, his direction, his leadership.
Speaking at his press conference ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Dundee, Levein noted that Hearts are in a better place now to deal with Naismith’s absence with Ikpeazu back fit while David Vanecek and Craig Wighton are returning to join Steven MacLean and Aidan Keena.
These are the five forwards who have potentially 13 games to fire Hearts to glory and become a hero, even attain legendary status were they to lift the Scottish Cup.
Uche Ikpeazu is the obvious candidate. The way he bullied and beguiled Thistle defenders on Monday was captivating and he nearly scored a goal of the season contender. At times, it’s like watching a cartoon with defenders bouncing off his towering frame.
However, the team are guilty of trying to play off him at every opportunity, and he is guilty of trying to take on too much as he attempts to use his considerable strength to burrow and body his way through. It becomes even more of a concern without Naismith to direct play elsewhere, create more inroads and give Uche more space.
The 24-year-old is already on the verge of becoming a cult figure but, if he is given more room to breathe and provided with better ammunition, he is capable of dragging Hearts kicking and screaming into the Scottish Cup final.
But he does need support. Early on in the season he developed a fine understanding with MacLean. The veteran forward has not been the same player since being required to play as the team’s focal point without Naismith and Ikpeazu.
Without Naismith he becomes a key leader and strategist in the final third. The person who demands and set standards, while making those movements to link the play and combine with supporting runners.
He’ll unlikely play every game but he has been there and done it. More than 200 games in the Scottish top flight and a Scottish Cup medal with St Johnstone.
There will be opportunities for the supporting cast.
Aidan Keena was brought back from a productive loan spell at Dunfermline Athletic and has been in fine scoring form for the reserves netting four goals in recent weeks, while also coming off the bench for the first team and finding the net.
His style is different to that of the other strikers. As he showed at East End Park, he is capable of conjuring up scoring opportunities for himself and is a threat from distance. That in itself is a massive quality to have on the bench when in need to something different, something special.
He is at the top of the pecking order to make the step forward, ahead of both Vanecek and Wighton.
The latter duo have had their fitness and injury issues to contend with and not had the impact supporters had hoped. The imposing Czech striker doesn’t look quite prepared for the rigours of Scottish football and, as for Wighton, he is one of those players who splits opinion in terms of his best position.
Levein would be reluctant to have to rely on either on the home stretch but, including Keena, the trio are options. Ones which other clubs would be more than happy to make use of.
And they only have to look at Wayne Foster, Suso Santana, Craig Beattie and others down the years who have written their name in club folklore by simply scoring a goal or putting together two or three memorable performances.
The same goes for the likes of Sean Clare, Jake Mulraney and Callumn Morrison, who have sparkled at times throughout the season without offering that continuity in terms of level of performance.
There may be plenty of negativity or concern regarding Hearts in recent weeks but the team are three wins away from Scottish Cup success. Just 270 minutes of football. Not to mention still in the hunt for European places.
Steven Naismith’s injury is an opportunity for someone, anyone, to step forward and ensure they become part of Hearts’ history.
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