As a man who played in front of Gilles Rousset and Antti Niemi through the majority of his five years at Tynecastle, Colin Cameron is well aware of the importance of having a safe pair of hands between the sticks.
From what he has seen of his old club so far this season, the legendary former midfielder believes that Zdenek Zlamal is equipped to add his name to a long list of highly-regarded Hearts goalkeepers.
While the likes of John Souttar, Steven Naismith, Peter Haring and Uche Ikpeazu have commanded the lion’s share of the publicity amid an impressive start to the season from the table-topping Edinburgh side, the 32-year-old Czech’s impact has largely gone under the radar.
Since arriving from Zlin in his homeland to replace the Sunderland-bound Scotland internationalist Jon McLaughlin in the summer, however, Zlamal – nicknamed Bobby – has proven himself to be an authorative and reliable goalkeeper, slotting in seamlessly and helping his new team to seven clean sheets and 11 victories in his first 14 competitive matches.
“He had big boots to fill because I thought McLaughlin was the best goalkeeper in Scotland last season,” Cameron told the Evening News. “But the lad has come in and done nothing wrong. He’s looked assured and confident. Time will tell whether he can be put in the same bracket as the likes of Antti Niemi because he’s going to have to keep going like this for the rest of the season and then some more, but he’s certainly started in that vein.”
Due to the sure-footed manner of Hearts’ play this season, Zlamal has generally only been required to get involved in sporadic instances within matches. Cameron believes the fact he possesses the mentality and focus to step up and deliver at these vital moments proves he is a goalkeeper of substance. “He’s not needed to pull off world-class saves left, right and centre, but that’s a good thing because it’s shown that the team hasn’t been coming under massive pressure,” explained Cameron. “But when he has been called upon, he’s come up with the goods. That’s sometimes harder than being a keeper who has loads of saves to make. If you’re not under a lot of pressure in a game, it becomes even more paramount that you’re able to make a save, come and get a cross or command your area when required. The fact he’s able to do that shows the quality of goalkeeper he is.”
Testament to how well Zlamal has performed is the fact he is keeping highly-regarded Republic of Ireland internationalist Colin Doyle on the bench. Cameron believes Zlamal’s influence, allied to a defence which has generally excelled this season, will be fuelling Hearts’ attack-minded players with confidence. “It’s massively important to have a quality goalkeeper if you want to be a team to be reckoned with,” said Cameron. “If you know you’ve got a good goalkeeper and a good defence behind you, it gives you the confidence of knowing that if you can score a goal or two, you’ll probably win the game. As a midfielder, when you have that stability behind you it gives you the confidence to go and create chances and try and score goals. They’ve not conceded many goals at all and if you’ve got a base like that, then it gives the likes of Naismith and Ikpeazu the licence to go and create and get you goals. It’s easy to see why Hearts are doing so well.”
Cameron was part of a Hearts team that took the Scottish Premier Division by storm for long periods of the memorable 1997/98 campaign under Jim Jefferies before eventually finishing third, seven points behind title winners Celtic. He understands the mental demands of trying to go toe to toe with more illustrious rivals like Celtic and Rangers over the course of a campaign, and acknowledges that the current Hearts team face a strong test of their credentials as they bid to bounce back from suffering their first defeat of the season at Ibrox in their last fixture. Cameron is confident Craig Levein’s side - aided by having a free weekend to get that setback out of their system - possess the required resilience to respond positively when Aberdeen visit Tynecastle on Saturday.
“For me, it’s a good thing that, since that defeat, Craig will have had a bit of time to speak to the players and get the mindset right,” said Cameron. “I don’t think he’ll have had to say that much to them because it seems like he’s got a group of players there who have enough determination that, if they suffer a setback, they’ll respond well. At some point in the season a defeat was going to happen. Obviously they would have hoped to have gone a while longer before that defeat came but it was inevitable. Now that it’s happened, people will have big question marks over them, wondering how their morale and confidence is going to be. How they respond over the next few games will go a long way to mapping out how the rest of the season will go for Hearts.”