Another summer rebuild is the last thing Hearts want, but it seems necessary to restore the Edinburgh club to the upper echelons of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Sitting sixth with little left to play for in mid-March isn’t acceptable to owner Ann Budge, manager Craig Levein or supporters.
Heavy investment at Tynecastle Park should see finishing touches applied to its £15million new main stand in time for next season. The construction of a team to justify those surroundings is ongoing despite extensive recruitment in the last six transfer windows.
Fighting to stay in the top six, a League Cup group exit last July under Levein’s predecessor Ian Cathro, and a Scottish Cup quarter-final loss against Motherwell aren’t what lured the director of football back into frontline management. He will demand better, which means more new faces.
The squad turnover in recent years has been the subject of much debate and signs are it won’t slow down. A total of 20 players have joined Hearts and left again since summer 2015. Levein knows more than anyone that stability is a prerequisite for long-term success, however he will also acknowledge the pressing need to revitalise his squad again at the first opportunity.
Three first-team players are out of contract in May, with five loans also expiring. Goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin, centre-back Aaron Hughes and midfielder Prince Buaben are in the final stages of their deals. Left-back Demetri Mitchell, winger David Milinkovic, forward Steven Naismith, midfielder Joaquim Adao and right-back Connor Randall are due to rejoin parent clubs as things stand.
Some others still under contract will be surplus to requirements. That leaves Hearts potentially looking to sign more than half a team again.
Only 12 senior professionals are contracted beyond the summer – Michael Smith, John Souttar, Christophe Berra, Danny Amankwaa, Kyle Lafferty, Arnaud Djoum, Jack Hamilton, Don Cowie, Ross Callachan, Malaury Martin, Conor Sammon and Liam Smith. The last two spent this season loaned out to Partick Thistle and St Mirren respectively, whilst Frenchman Martin is out of favour.
Promising teenagers like Harry Cochrane, Andy Irving, Anthony McDonald and the rest will, of course, play useful supplementary roles. They cannot yet be expected to form the spine of a side challenging for Europe and silverware, though.
“There will be more changes, no doubt about that,” said the former Hearts midfielder Colin Cameron. “The problem for Craig will be that he might not find it easy to offload some players depending how long their contracts run. How many leave will determine how many he is will be able to bring in. He’ll have a budget.
“One thing in Craig’s favour is he’ll be able to work with whoever comes in during pre-season. He’ll get to understand their strengths and weaknesses. It’s more difficult doing business in the January transfer window when it’s mid-season.
“The summer gives him a chance to get a good month of work done with the guys he decides to bring in. He didn’t have that last year. He was still on the scene but he wasn’t in charge like he is now.
“This will be a big, big pre-season for Craig. You’ll have players leaving, new ones coming in, and then it’s how quickly he can get the new guys to settle in and produce what’s expected from them.”
McLaughlin has already refused one Hearts contract offer, which remains on the table, and has suitors down south. He was deservedly named in Alex McLeish’s Scotland squad yesterday in a move which does not help the Tynecastle hierarchy’s hopes of persuading him to stay. Clubs in England were already aware the goalkeeper had set a new Tynecastle record of eight successive clean sheets before a first international call-up from the country of his birth.
Buaben’s future is uncertain as his agreement nears expiry. He has started only nine of Hearts’ 30 league games to date this season but was heavily involved in the team during the aforementioned run of clean sheets. At 29, he is certain to want more regular game time either way.
Hughes, aged 38, will decide at the end of the season whether to prolong his career for another year. He was again named in the Northern Ireland squad yesterday and clearly still has something to offer at club and international level despite his veteran status.
What Hearts must do this year is identify the right incomings who can have a long-term future in Gorgie, thus avoiding the need to terminate contracts and pay severance packages further down the line. Levein watched previous head coaches sign many players they identified. Now he is trying to ensure squad stability for next season and beyond.
The 20 players who have come and gone since summer 2015 are: Blazej Augustyn, Gavin Reilly, Juanma Delgado, Igor Rossi, Juwon Oshaniwa, Danny Swanson, Perry Kitchen, Robbie Muirhead, Faycal Rherras, Viktor Noring, Bjorn Johnsen, Krystian Nowak, Lennard Sowah, Andraz Struna, Dylan Bikey, Alex Tziolis, Tasos Avlonitis, Esmael Goncalves, Cole Stockton and Rafal Grzelak.
It should be noted that Goncalves, Muirhead, Rossi and Johnsen all left for a transfer fee, but nonetheless that level of upheaval inside three years does nothing for continuity or team spirit.
“At any club, when lots of players are coming and going, it takes time to bed in together,” explained Cameron, who is currently head coach at Edusport Academy in Edinburgh. “If you’re constantly changing then there isn’t going to be consistency. You have to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and that comes from playing and training together every week.
“If you add two or three new faces here and there, it’s easier to integrate them. Any new player has to figure out how the manager works and what he wants from them. If there’s a lot of your squad trying to learn that at the same time, it’s hard to get consistency.
“It poses lots of challenges if there is a big turnover of players, which has been the case lately at Hearts. Every time I go to a game there’s somebody new involved. I’m asking: ‘Who’s that? Where did he come from?’ I’m not there every week or anything but I find myself asking when did this player come in and things like that.
“Craig will have an idea in his head of what he wants. It’s just as difficult for the manager to learn about players. You might see different things when you work with them on a day-to-day basis. If you’re having to run the rule over a lot of players rather than two or three, maybe he isn’t getting to concentrate on what he wants. He will certainly want more stability going forward.”