Hearts working with Rangers over Alex Lowry issue - three players ruled out of Celtic match but one returns

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Midfielder is causing some concern ahead of the weekend's game

Three Hearts players have been ruled out of Saturday's Premiership trip to face Celtic in Glasgow. However, the Edinburgh club should welcome the Australian defender Nathaniel Atkinson back into their squad following a bout of illness.

Midfielder Alex Lowry is nursing a back issue which is causing some concern. He is on loan at Hearts from Rangers and medical staff from both clubs are working together to treat the problem. He is not available this weekend as a result.

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Striker Liam Boyce will not be risked as he works back to full fitness after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury. Another Australian, Calem Nieuwenhof, is out with a hand injury which may be placed in a cast.

"Lowry has a small issue in his back which, between Hearts and Rangers, we are trying to get to the bottom of," confirmed Steven Naismith, the Hearts head coach. "At the moment he has come out more precautionary until we find out the full extent of it.

"Boycey was out on the pitch today [Thursday] but it’s a muscle injury so we don’t want to risk it. Nieuwenhof will be out this week. Potentially next week he is getting a cast made and it’s more about how comfortable he can be in the session with protection on his hand. Next week we will wait and see. Atkinson was back at the start of the week so he has had a normal week."

If Hearts are to garner any kind of result at Celtic Park, where they have not won a league fixture since 2007, then striker Lawrence Shankland will likely be a central figure. Tynecastle officials stated after this week's AGM that they anticipate contract talks with the 28-year-old early next year. His current deal is due to expire in summer 2025.

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"There’s been a lot of noise, the club’s stance is very clear and it’s the stance of a club that’s trying to be progressive and wants to be successful," explained Naismith. "As a club, and as you’ve seen with some signings and hopefully others in the near future, the club are trying to grow. By doing that, you need to try and keep your best players.

"It would be silly not to offer new contracts to the guys you feel are valuable and can play a part in the long-term future of the club."

The AGM was peppered with questions from shareholders regarding Hearts' style of play this season. Many fans want a more assertive approach rather than the passive and pedestrian displays offered at times this term. Naismith is aware of the criticism.

"It's always going to be there. Being involved with the club, you are always going to feel it, but it's an opinion," he said. "At times, yes, I would say the football hasn't been the way we wanted it to be, but at other times it has been.

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"From when I started as a player to now, the club has moved and the dynamic of the league has moved so much. The need to survive has changed, so teams come to Tynie and you can't play waving attacking football if they have 10 men behind the ball on their own 18-yard box. Our last two home games have been like that so you need to win them a different way.

"Is it as entertaining as going end-to-end and having chance after chance? No, but teams are setting up that way to stop you, so you need to deal with that first. I experienced it as a player at some big clubs. For 90 minutes, it's not end-to-end.

"I'm pretty certain that, earlier in the season, there was some good entertaining football. Then the squad dynamic changes, which probably changes the formation [to 3-5-2], which has probably held us back in the respect of bodies in attack.

"We are asking more of our wing-backs to get forward and at times that hasn't happened, which leaves you less bodies in attack."We want to play it [more attacking football], at times we have played it, and other times we haven't."

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Naismith accepts that Hearts fans will always react passionately to their team's performance - good or bad. "Fans are passionate. They are going to use words and feelings that they feel," he said. "For me, you need a clear mind and a level head and understand it.

"I've been in all these situations as a player and as a coach at times when you're not winning games. The last thing you can do is start getting emotional and reactive. That goes against what you really believe in, which won't have any long-term success for me."

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