After scoring five goals in the final nine games of last season, a buoyant Dale Carrick spent the summer salivating at the prospect of “kicking on” this term.
Even the arrival of three new strikers – James Keatings, Osman Sow and Soufian El Hassnaoui – wasn’t enough to dampen the mood of the bullish 20-year-old forward as he geared up for the current campaign. When he started the first two competitive games of the season – against Annan Athletic in the Petrofac Cup and Rangers in the Championship – it was clear Carrick was going to be given a chance to build on his fine form of last spring.
Then injuries took hold and stopped him in his tracks. A thigh problem, sustained late in the 2-1 win at Ibrox in August ruled him out for six weeks. Then, after returning to the fray for four matches in the autumn, a hamstring injury sustained in an Under-20s match in mid-October has had him sidelined for the past two months.
As he prepares to return to the squad for tomorrow’s Championship match at home to Alloa, Carrick admitted the season couldn’t have gone much worse for him. “It’s been frustrating – it’s not how I planned this season to go,” he told the Evening News. “I was still buzzing in the summer from how I’d done at the end of last season, getting goals and starts. I was looking forward to kicking on this season but injuries have held me back.”
Although short of match fitness, Carrick is confident he is now free of the niggling hamstring problem that has consigned him to the sidelines since the last time Hearts faced Alloa on October 11. “I’ve been back fit and training so I’m hoping to play a part against Alloa,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s my hamstring fully recovered. It went in a 20s game and it’s had an effect on me since then. I tried to come back a couple of weeks ago and it tweaked up again so hopefully that’s me fully fit now.
“It’s not related to the injury I had at the start of the season – that was my quad. I’m not match fit yet. The game last week [against Cowdenbeath] was called off, so I’ve just been training hard and trying to get my fitness back from that.”
Aside from watching his team-mates excel in his absence, the main source of solace for Carrick in this disrupted campaign came when he returned from the thigh injury as a late substitute and fired a stunning double to cap a 5-1 win over Cowdenbeath on September 20. That contribution, in what was his first outing in six weeks, gives him hope that he can hit the ground running once again as he prepares to return to the side.
“I came on and nearly scored a hat-trick, but I was just delighted to get two goals that day,” he recalls. “I had been dying to get back in the team and get a couple of goals. That showed that I’m capable of coming straight in after injury and making an impact, so hopefully I can do the same against Alloa. I’ve got the hunger to do that.”
Carrick admits he’s found it hard to feel a part of Hearts’ scintillating start to the season, having appeared in only six of their 20 matches in all competitions. “The team’s been doing excellent while I’ve been out,” he said. “They’ve been scoring goals and winning games comfortably and I want to be part of that.
“It’s enjoyable watching the team winning and accumulating points but it’s frustrating that I’ve not been part of it and have been stuck in the stands injured. I just want to be a part of the team instead of being injured all the time.”
With Sow sidelined until next month and El Hassnaoui having missed out recently with a minor injury, Carrick senses a chance to force his way back into the starting XI. “We started the season with five strikers but now everyone seems to be getting wee niggles so there’s an opportunity to get back in the team and now that I’m fit,” he said. “I’d be happy to play in a two or on my own up front, just as long as I’m playing and we’re winning. I played up front on my own at times last season, with Stevo [Ryan Stevenson] just behind me, but I’m happy to play in a two as well.”
Hearts were denied the chance to open up a 12-point lead at the top of the Championship after their match at Cowdenbeath was postponed due to a frozen pitch, but their players still had an enjoyable weekend as they headed to Manchester for a two-night Christmas jaunt. Carrick explained that a couple of nights on the tiles together merely enhanced camaraderie among an already tight-knit group. “All the boys get on well – we’re a good collective and we have good banter,” said the striker. “We all mingle together – there’s not too many old players in the team so we’re all roughly the same age and we have the same sort of banter.
“Manchester was a good team-bonding session, going out dancing together and all that. We had Christmas jumpers on on the Sunday – some were good, others were shockers. It’s a busy period so it was nice to get a couple of days away together to relax. It was really enjoyable but now our heads are straight for the weekend and we’re focused on getting three points.”
The last time Hearts faced Alloa they required a late and fortuitous Adam Eckersley goal to eke out a 1-0 win at Recreation Park. Carrick, who played the first half of that game before being forced off through illness, said: “I’d expect another really tough game against them but I’m confident we can win it. If we come through the next two games, we’ll be unbeaten all the way up to Christmas which would be some achievement for a newly-built squad.”