Gayfield provides a humble setting for Hearts to begin a new chapter this evening. Arbroath’s home is a typical Scottish lower-league venue, but high expectations surround the ten new recruits who will arrive on the away team coach for their first pre-season friendly.
Many of them are previously unknown, stepping up from a lower level or arriving from a different country. The closest to a marquee signing would appear to be the Australian internationalist Oliver Bozanic given his World Cup experience. He is expected to anchor a new-look midfield.
Indeed, that central area has undergone the biggest transformation since Hearts ended season 2017/18 at Kilmarnock six weeks ago. Don Cowie, Ross Callachan and Harry Cochrane are joined by the incoming Bozanic, Olly Lee, Ryan Edwards, Bobby Burns and Jake Mulraney.
There could be another wide player to follow after a deal for David Milinkovic collapsed. Arnaud Djoum is recovering from a snapped Achilles, while Malaury Martin is out of favour and free to leave Tynecastle Park. Danny Amankwaa has still to make an impact six months after arriving from FC Copenhagen.
Competition for places in the so-called engine room is fierce – just as manager Craig Levein intended. He assembled a group of players who will fight with one another for game time having been distressed by the paucity of Hearts’ midfield for much of last season.
“The competition in the middle of the park will be much better,” remarked Levein. “I go back to last year and the competition was sorely lacking at times in our midfield. I feel quite happy with the fact we have a lot of players competing for starting positions.
“It can be hard to impress that on players if they know they are starting every week. We ended up in a situation last season where that was happening quite a lot. Competition for places will keep everybody on their toes.”
The added edge should naturally aid the development of the many teenagers hoping to impress Levein during this pre-season campaign. Tonight’s match in Arbroath is the first of five friendlies for Hearts before four Betfred League Cup group ties.
Cochrane and Anthony McDonald are two players who made a serious impression on the club’s management team last year. “I’m expecting Harry and Anthony to kick on next season. They are two young ones who definitely improved so I’m looking for them to improve again. I think having a stronger midfield round about them will benefit them.”
The difference this time is Levein will not need to be overly reliant on youngsters, no matter their promise. The reason he negotiated so much business during a frantic close season was to ensure his squad was prepared for all eventualities over the coming months.
He knows he can’t expect teenagers to drive a quest for European football, so a recruitment drive which reached double figures was pretty much necessary.
“We needed to strengthen the squad. The kids were great last year but I ended up relying on them in situations where I probably wasn’t doing them any favours,” admitted Levein.
“They were excellent and they helped us enormously but I don’t want to be in a situation where I have to rely on them like that again.
“I want to be able to manage how they are put into the team and when they are put into the team, rather than having to put them in. To do that, I need strong characters in the side, big players with a good mentality. I’m hoping the players I’ve signed are going to bring those qualities.”
Starting tonight, nine games inside the month of July will help him find out.