Hearts mastering art of finding stars for free

The signing of Arnaud Djoum represents an astute bit of business for Hearts
The signing of Arnaud Djoum represents an astute bit of business for Hearts
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UNATTACHED players have given Hearts better value than some clubs get from transfers costing millions.

The good judgment in recruitment shown by owner Ann Budge and director of football Craig Levein puts their predecessors, the Romanovs, to shame. The post-administration era at Tynecastle proves quality footballers with development potential and moderate wages are out there. To get them, you must scout well.

An entire team of free agents have underpinned Hearts’ recovery since their financial collapse, to the point where they are now challenging for European qualification once again. Levein’s network of contacts helped produce shrewd signings like Osman Sow, Alim Ozturk, Adam Eckersley, Miguel Pallardo, Prince Buaben, Morgaro Gomis, Neil Alexander, Blazej Augustyn, Igor Rossi, Arnaud Djoum, Juanma Delgado and Dario Zanatta. None of the above cost a penny. Indeed, one or two could, in time, earn Hearts a sizeable profit.

The model being followed is one of “sign, develop and sell” where possible. Budge is less than two years into a five-year plan to rebuild Hearts. Eventually, she and Levein hope some of those procured for nothing will move on for a decent transfer fee. English scouts are already filling up the Tynecastle directors’ box this season, although many of them will be monitoring Sow, who is available for free as his contract expires this summer.

Ironically, players who did cost Hearts money in the last 18 months haven’t been too successful so far. Gavin Reilly is an exception after taking time to settle following his transfer from Queen of the South. He now looks like a very useful attacking option beside either Sow or Juanma. However, Kenny Anderson returned to the Netherlands this month after failing to justify the minimal amount of cash shelled out to bring him from RKC Waalwijk last year. Likewise, Juwon Oshaniwa has yet to prove value for money from the Israeli club FC Ashdod.

The positives of far outweigh the negatives, however. Hearts have built a team capable of challenging at the top end of the Scottish Premiership and hardly spent a penny. Head coach Robbie Neilson has repeatedly stressed the need to get value from any signing, particularly in light of the monetary suicide which characterised the Romanov regime. The free agent market has offered exactly that.

“I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen recently,” said the former Tynecastle chairman Leslie Deans. “Arnaud Djoum, for example. I’m scratching my head thinking: ‘How did we manage to get this guy?’ Last season we brought in people like Pallardo and Osman Sow and they’ve been big players for Hearts. It’s a pleasure to see how the club is progressing.

“The board will be delighted about this. The board have done a very good job of resurrecting the club from the depths it was left it when they took over. There are still many things to be done. Fans want to see winning football and an exciting team and they will turn up for that. That’s why Tynecastle is selling out every time Hearts play this season. That also brings more money into club which is giving greater financial stability. I wouldn’t want to be blasé about it but it’s great to watch and I’m sure the board share that view.

“If the team keeps performing and results keep coming, it’s reasonable to assume that scouts who are regularly at Tynecastle will be reporting back to their clubs. You can see there are some of the present squad who could bring in substantial transfer fees. Hearts have made it clear that they won’t stand in players’ way if they want to move down south to earn greater financial reward.

“Players are attracted by that possibility. They can come to the most atmospheric stadium in Scotland, play in front of full houses, in a team that is on the up, in an attractive city and potentially get the opportunity to move to England if their performances merit it. They know Hearts won’t stop them if the time comes for them to move on. When a player is thinking of signing, if they know all of the above, it’s a really powerful incentive to come to Tynecastle.”

Levein’s role in all of this shouldn’t be underestimated. His shrewd transfer dealings brought players like Mark de Vries to Edinburgh when he managed Hearts. His contacts book has a few more entries now and he is utilising them well. “I remember 18 years ago when we were able to bring in people of the quality of Gilles Rousset, Stefano Salvatori, Thomas Flogel and Pasquale Bruno,” recalled Deans. “These guys didn’t cost us transfer fees. We were able to pay small fees for guys like Neil McCann, who we brought in and sold on for a very good profit to Rangers a few years later. The policy Hearts are pursuing at the moment is very reminiscent of those days.

“It’s clearly helped by having somebody operating in the transfer market who is as astute as Craig Levein. He knows the game inside out and has lots of contacts. That is working to Hearts’ benefit. When your head coach and director of football work well together, it bodes well for the future.

“None of this surprises me. Craig managed to do this when he was manager at Tynecastle from 2000 to 2004. The financial situation wasn’t good yet he still signed quality players to keep us in the top three or four in Scotland. Remember, that was in a league containing both Hibs and Rangers, none of whom are there right now.”

The full value of those signed over the last 18 months or so will soon become clear as Hearts pursue a European place and the Scottish Cup. Pressure was evident this time last year as they attempted to close out a record-breaking title win in the Scottish Championship. The top flight is rather more high-profile. Handling the hype and scrutiny will be as big a challenge as the actual football.

“We’re coming to the business end of the season. Hearts are third in the league and still in the Scottish Cup with a tie against our city rivals to come a week on Sunday,” said Deans. “That game is live on television, which will be three weekends in a row Hearts games have been broadcast live. There is an interest about the club and there is a feelgood factor. I’m sure the board have plans to build on this.”