How ready are Hearts as they rejoin Scotland's Premiership elite for the first time since Covid-19 pandemic?
The intervening period brought Court of Session disputes, new management and coaches, enforced relegation, an order to stop training, embarrassing cup exits, a Championship title win and promotion – all without fans amid the unpredictability of a worldwide health pandemic.
Tynecastle Park’s history books detail many tumultuous times since Heart of Midlothian formed in 1874. None could be considered quite as traumatic as events since March 2020. There is considerable relief that an element of normality is finally returning to Gorgie.
Hearts are back in the Premiership this weekend when Celtic arrive in town for an 8pm kick-off. Much like a Saturday night heavyweight boxing bout, a ring announcer and strobe lights would very much do justice to the occasion. So, how ready are the Edinburgh club for stepping up into the big time?
Off the field, owner Ann Budge has ceded day-to-day control to chief executive Andrew McKinlay. Supporters will soon become owners through Foundation of Hearts. Tynecastle’s stands are gradually looking occupied again with Scottish Government permission, 2989 attending Sunday’s final Premier Sports Cup group tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Still rather gentle
Those preliminary matches are the only gauge for judging on-field matters right now. They are competitive and meaningful for the right to reach the knockout phase, but still nonetheless a rather gentle start to the new season. Even important games against lower-division opponents cannot replicate the kind top-flight intensity generated by a visit from Celtic.
Hearts fared exceptionally well, it must be said, beating Peterhead, Cove Rangers, Stirling Albion and Inverness without conceding a single goal in Group A. Defensive miserliness is an encouraging foundation for the league campaign.
Goalkeeper Craig Gordon is enjoying a record 11-game run of competitive shutouts and rightly has effusive praise bestowed upon him. The sequence dates back to the end of last season and pretty much began when centre-back John Souttar returned from long-term injury. That Hearts are notably less porous with Souttar on the field is no coincidence.
A new three-man defensive formation was implemented by Robbie Neilson the Hearts manager, for the final five Championship matches. Souttar returned and the back line instantly looked more confident. They last conceded a competitive goal on March 27.
The 3-4-3 system continued in the Premier Sports Cup, although 4-3-3 was used against Inverness. Is that an attempt at mind games with new Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou watching? Perhaps. There is no doubt three centre-backs and two wing-backs suits the players at Neilson’s disposal.
There are rotations within that system: Michael Smith steps from right wing-back into midfield; Wingers Josh Ginnelly and Gary Mackay-Steven drift into a central No.10 position when a wing-back advances on their side; Souttar and Stephen Kingsley take turns in stepping out with the ball from right and left centre-back respectively.
Ginnelly and goalkeeper Ross Stewart remain Hearts’ only two permanent signings to date this summer, while left wing-back Alex Cochrane is on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion. Fans growing restless at the lack of new faces are advised to stay patient after years of mismanagement on recruitment issues by previous regimes.
So defensive stoicism augurs well for upcoming examinations, but there is no doubting the first-team squad requires extra quality for the Premiership. Trips to places like Paisley and Pittodrie will be far more taxing than Peterhead and Stirling, not to mention Easter Road, Ibrox and Celtic Park.
List on Riccarton’s wall
A left-sided centre-back, a creative midfielder and a forward are all on the list of wants pinned on Riccarton’s office wall. “We have an idea of what we want to do. We still need to add more and we know that,” said Neilson in conversation with the Evening News.
“Myself and Joe are working hard on it with the recruitment staff. In certain areas, we have to be better and we need better options. These things take time, as we’ve been saying for a number of weeks now.”
A more ruthless edge inside the penalty area would enhance chances of achieving the minimum aim of a top-six place this season. Hearts scored eight goals in their four Premier Sports Cup ties but it could have been treble that number.
Against Peterhead, they managed 17 attempts, six on target, and finished with two goals. There were 18 efforts against Cove, with eight on target resulting in three goals. Stirling restricted them to 14 shots, four on target and two goals. Against Inverness, 21 attempts and 12 on target brought just one goal.
It belonged to Jamie Walker who once again demonstrated talismanic qualities. He might have scored four alone in a breathtaking 25-minute cameo aiming to stake a claim for a start against Celtic. Midfield is probably where Hearts’ greatest dilemmas lie this weekend.
Does Walker start in a central role after his Inverness outing? How about 17-year-old Finlay Pollock, outstanding in the Premier Sports Cup games? Neilson generally favours experience on the biggest stage, so a central midfield pairing of Peter Haring and Andy Halliday may well supersede all other combinations.
That would likely leave Walker and Pollock on the bench, alongside others like Armand Gnanduillet, Mihai Popescu and Aaron McEneff.
“Jamie has been working hard on his fitness because we know what he can do. We’d like him to do it from the start of games,” added Neilson. “Some of the players are still getting used to what Armand wants so it’s a work in progress but I’m pleased with how things have gone so far.”