Hearts look for spark from within as new season offers fresh start for underperformers
Amid the notable shortage of summer signings thus far, Hearts must hope that their early-season spark ignites from within a crew of familiar and occasionally-maligned faces.
Given the significant player turnover of recent transfer windows, it is a source of surprise and mild concern to some supporters that they are preparing to kick off a new campaign in Peterhead this weekend with just one new face having been added to the squad.
More will follow in due course once the market starts to become more vibrant, but as things stand, Alex Cochrane, the 21-year-old defender signed on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion, is the only fresh addition to a group that didn’t look particularly sure-footed in winning the Scottish Championship and also suffered the ignominy of going out of both cup competitions to lower-league opponents.
Since concluding last season with a 4-0 victory away to Raith Rovers at the end of April, much of the rancour associated with last term has subsided among the fanbase in the intervening two months. The onset of a new campaign - which begins with a Premier Sports Cup tie away to League One side Peterhead tomorrow - represents something of a fresh start for many at Hearts who have hitherto fallen short of the required standards.
Loic Damour and Jordan Roberts have returned to contention this summer after being deemed surplus last term and, according to manager Robbie Neilson both will get a chance to try and stake a claim for involvement in the season ahead. Although many supporters are sceptical about the prospects of either of this pair proving capable of overcoming chastening starts to their respective Hearts careers, they are likely to be driven by professional pride and a desire to prove their worth after being roundly written off.
While expectations among the fanbase aren’t particularly high for Damour and Roberts, it seems realistic to expect greater productivity from others in the squad who might reasonably deem last season as something of a bedding-in period. Josh Ginnelly, who recently signed a two-year deal, showed in glimpses in between injury troubles during his loan stint last season that he should be able to bring genuine quality to the attacking department if he can remain fit.
In addition, Neilson is confident that his January signings - Armand Gnanduillet, Gary Mackay-Steven and Aaron McEneff - will be far better equipped to flourish in the Premiership, in front of crowds, after a full pre-season, than they were when arriving in the middle of last season’s pandemic-blighted slog in the second tier.
Quality and consistency is expected from all three.
“We spoke about that, about investing in these guys in January and getting them in to look towards the Premiership,” said Neilson. “They’re all looking sharp in training. Gary was excellent in the last five or six games of last season and he’s carried that into pre-season. Armand’s been the same. With Aaron, it was about adapting to Scottish football.
"They’re all looking good. Getting Gino (Ginnelly) back will be like a new signing. He lit it up in the games he played last season. From our perspective, it’s just about making sure he’s fit as much as possible. Touch wood, he’s had a clear pre-season and done very well in the games so far.”
Given his belief that several of the squad he put together last season will rise to the challenge of playing in the Premiership, and with the possibility that some youngsters could step in and make their presence felt, Neilson is content with the current state of play as he prepares to take his team north for tomorrow’s match at Balmoor.
Although eager to strengthen, the manager has faith in the players currently at his disposal and is happy to bide his time to ensure any new recruits are of the desired quality. “I’m pleased with the way things are shaping up,” said Neilson, with regards to his team’s pre-season preparations.
“We’ve managed to get Alex in and there are a couple of other areas we’d like to strengthen but it’s still very early in everyone else’s transfer window apart from in Scotland because we start the competitive games so early. There’s not a lot of movement down south, or anywhere really, so we’re just waiting for the right players to come up. We’ve got a couple of targets we hope we can get in but we’re waiting on them to make a final decision.
“I could have filled the squad up with the positions we’re looking for six weeks ago, but it wouldn’t have been the players we were looking for. So, for me, it’s about just waiting to get the right ones in and making sure we do that. I don’t want to just fill it up too early.
“We’ve got a couple of targets we’re after and we’re hopeful of getting them in as quickly as possible. If it takes a week or if it takes two weeks or three weeks, then so be it. The pleasing thing for us is we’ve got a pretty solid squad, so we’re not desperate for positions. We can put out a good strong team, with a good bench as well and it’s about adding a bit of quality to it.”
After tomorrow’s trip to Balmoor, where, incidentally, Ian Cathro suffered a fatal defeat as Hearts manager in the same competition four years ago, the Tynecastle side host Cove Rangers on Tuesday. Neilson is mindful of the need to balance getting game time for as many players as possible with ensuring his team - still tarnished by memories of last season’s cup defeats by Alloa Athletic and Brora Rangers - don’t suffer any morale-sapping early-season setbacks.
“We’ll make some changes but we’re going into these games to win them, so there won’t be too many changes,” said Neilson, who hopes to have a full-strength squad available for selection.