Hearts set for busy negotiations with 20 players on deals expiring
The Hearts sporting director Joe Savage will soon begin a predictably hectic negotiation period with 20 Tynecastle players on deals expiring this season.
A total of 17 contracts at the Edinburgh club finish next summer, with three loan agreements also ending at the same point. For Savage and manager Robbie Neilson, the time for offering renewals to those they want to keep is fast approaching.
One prize asset, the Scotland international defender John Souttar, has already held discussions about a possible extension. Many others in the final year of their deals are still waiting to learn of management's long-term plans.
They are Craig Gordon, Michael Smith, Stephen Kingsley, Peter Haring, Jamie Walker, Andy Halliday, Craig Halkett, Armand Gnanduillet, Jamie Brandon, Jordan Roberts, Mihai Popescu, Euan Henderson, Scott McGill, Connor Smith, Aidan Denholm and Chris Hamilton.
Additionally, loanees Ben Woodburn, Taylor Moore and Alex Cochrane are in Scotland on season-long agreements from Liverpool, Bristol City and Brighton respectively. It remains to be seen whether any of those loans can be converted into permanent deals.
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Hearts’ strong start to life back in the Premiership indicates many of the 20 in question would be worth retaining. They entered the international break unbeaten after eight league games as a newly-promoted team and sit just a point behind leaders Rangers, their opponents next weekend in Glasgow.
The likes of captain Gordon, plus defenders Michael Smith, Kingsley and Halkett are cornerstones of Neilson’s new-look side. They can expect to be given the chance to extend their time in maroon over the next few weeks. In Smith’s case, a set number of first-team appearances this season will trigger a new contract proposal.
Fire and danger
The manager recently told the Evening News that he wants to see players striving to earn new deals before any paperwork will be slapped on the table. “There’s got to be that fire to earn a contract,” he remarked just two weeks ago.
“We don’t want to have a couple of good games in the top flight and then we’re handing out three-year deals. Players need to consistently show they can do it at this level and get the club to where they want to get to.”
The danger, of course, is waiting too long. Many of the names above can legally start talking to other clubs about moves in a matter of weeks when their contracts enter the last six months.
Established first-team faces like midfielders Haring, Walker and Halliday, plus striker Gnanduillet find themselves out of the starting line-up at the moment. Their endeavours over the next few weeks may have a pivotal effect on their Hearts futures.
Younger players such as forward Henderson, plus midfielders McGill, Connor Smith and Denholm are out on loan to gain more experience of senior football. Henderson is at Alloa, McGill with Airdrie, Smith at Queen’s Park and Denholm with Berwick Rangers.
Their progress as development players will be monitored before decisions are taken on whether to extend their contracts. Right-back Brandon will be assessed and given time to regain fitness once he returns from a ruptured cruciate ligament which sidelined him back in January.
Winger Roberts along with centre-backs Popescu and Hamilton are effectively running down their time at Hearts. They aren’t expected to feature at first-team level for the club again.
Roberts made little impact since arriving in summer 2020 on a two-year contract from Ipswich Town. He is currently on loan at Motherwell until January, an arrangement which could be extended until the end of the season when his Hearts contract expires.
The Romanian Popescu joined Hamilton on loan in August and will stay with the Championship club for the remainder of the campaign, after which he becomes a free agent.
He played regularly in the Hearts team which won that division and secured promotion last year. However, he was deemed surplus to requirements for the top flight after some erratic displays.
“I am happy I can get the chance to play and to show what I can do on the pitch,” he said after arriving in South Lanarkshire. “It was a good year for me last year. I played a lot of games and we won the title.
“To be honest, the league was harder than I thought. There was a good challenge from other teams. I really enjoyed the Championship, hopefully we will win the title again.
“Hopefully I can play the same number of games, maybe more, and help the team go back to the first league. I’m not coming here to be a leader. I am coming here to play and to help the young players if I have good experiences.
“I have enough experience to help them learn better things from me, not the bad ones.”
Hamilton, still only 20, is willing to leave Tynecastle to play regular first-team football. The Riccarton youth academy graduate is on loan at Arbroath until January – again, an extension until the summer could transpire – and has helped them to a lofty position of third in the Championship table.
“I’m not one for sitting around waiting for the chance to get on the Hearts bench – I want to play,” he said in a local interview after arriving at Gayfield. “Robbie Neilson has been very honest with me. With a year left on my deal, I’m going to find it hard to get game time at Hearts.
“When a club like Arbroath wants you then you take the opportunity. I want to play football. If it’s not to be at Hearts then I don’t want to hang around.
“I want to make a career for myself and if that means dropping down then I’ll do it. But right now I want to focus on what I can achieve with Arbroath.”