How Hearts' season so far has shown what was right and wrong in summer transfer window
This summer was a tremendously important time for Hearts as they sought to build on the success of last season by reshaping and improving the squad.
There’s great significance in any window in top flight football, but this was particularly consequential one to Hearts. Through a little stroke of fortune, Hearts’ first top three finish in six years coincided with Scotland’s co-efficient growing to the extend that third place enabled access to group-stage European football, either through the Europa League or recently-created Europa Conference League.
These tournaments don’t have the financial clout of the Champions League, a cash cow which has helped clubs across the continent dominate domestic leagues for a number of years, but the promise of bringing in up to £5 million in extra revenue would certainly give the Jam Tarts an advantage over every other team in Scotland outside of Glasgow. What’s more, the carrot is there again, dangling at the end of the stick for when the 2022/23 campaign comes to a close. Earning such a prize two years in succession could, it can be said without hyperbole, improve the fortunes of a football team for years to come.
Hearts had to get things right. While continuing with their ‘quality over quantity’ strategy which had served them well thus far, they also needed to bolster the squad to cope with the demands of competing both in Europe and in the cinch Premiership.
So far things are going according to plan. Hearts sit in third place once again, while the 2-0 win away to RFS has them second in their Conference League group after two games played. But it’s also fair to say there have been a couple of unpleasant bumps in the road and questions have been raised about the recruitment.
Who left from last season’s first-team?
Aaron McEneff, John Souttar, Jamie Walker, Taylor Moore, Ellis Simms and Ben Woodburn.
Three of these players were loanees so it was little surprise they left, especially Woodburn and Moore. Both of them had their moments in maroon and were serviceable squad players, but neither quite lived up to early promise, particularly Woodburn.
Walker was a popular figure with the support but his physical limitations didn’t mesh with Robbie Neilson’s demand for urgency in and out of possession. McEneff showed flashes and could’ve been granted more opportunities, but didn’t always grasp those he received, especially among the starting XI. While Souttar was another expected departure after he signed a pre-contract with Rangers in January.
He, along with Simms, were the big exits. The Everton loanee shone brightly in his five months at Tynecastle, but it always seemed evident he was in Edinburgh for a good time, not a long time.
Lawrence Shankland, Orestis Kiomourtzoglu, Alex Cochrane, Zander Clark, Alan Forrest, Jorge Grant, Lewis Neilson, Kye Rowles, Robert Snodgrass and Stephen Humphrys.
If we discount Walker, who left on loan in January, and take into account Liam Boyce’s potentially-season-ending injury, then Hearts met their target of bolstering last season’s squad by four players. Most of the consternation, however, surrounded the time it took in order to achieve that goal. Both Snodgrass and Kiomourtzoglu were only able to finally make their debuts in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Motherwell, while Humphrys is another just getting up to speed after being signed on loan from Wigan on deadline day. It’s also hard to imagine Clark playing much with Craig Gordon still very much acting the part of Gorgie Superman.
Who has impressed?
Shankland has netted six goals before October and, if he avoids injury, already looks assured of being the first Hearts striker to bag 20 goals in a season since John Robertson in the early 90s. Cochrane has taken his play up a level after deciding to return to Tynecastle on a permanent deal from Brighton. Rowles was arguably the club’s best player so far this season before he was knocked out of action for 6-8 weeks with a foot injury. Grant and Forrest have impressed in some cases and frustrated in others but certainly look like they’ll add something. And Neilson has managed to exceed expectations by excelling in his few starts after seemingly being signed as a bit of a long-term project.
Are Hearts better or worse?
It’s a good question. The squad as a whole certainly feels stronger. There are more options around the place, especially further forward.
Forrest hasn’t quite risen to the levels of ‘Barrie-McKay-but-on-the-other-wing’ though he does look an improvement on Gary Mackay-Steven and Josh Ginnelly. Grant gives Hearts a centre-midfielder capable of getting forward and influencing the attack. Snodgrass should also provide a bit of guile, a goal threat and some experience as a No.10. It’s early days on Humphrys but his height adds a different element too, while Shankland is the goalscorer Hearts have badly needed for a long time.
That said, the strongest XI does feel a little weaker. As good as Rowles has been, a massive strength of last season’s side was that imperious-yet-technically-excellent back three of Souttar, Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley. Since Rowles is left-footed he could never have been a direct replacement for Souttar. If Hearts were banking on Toby Sibbick being that man then they’ve got it badly wrong. He’s a better player than he’s showing at the moment, but there was enough evidence last season following his arrival in January that he wasn’t all-too-comfortable on the right of a back three. There’s a bit of good fortune Neilson has already risen to the fore because otherwise it would have been a real gap in the squad.
Only having Shankland and Humphrys capable of leading the line leaves Hearts open to a real problem should either of them get injured for any significant length of time. Plus, losing Simms and Boyce and replacing them with Shankland and [insert other] is a small downgrade.