Thirteen Hearts signings in one transfer window eclipses the 11 completed by former owner Vladimir Romanov in 2006. This time, there is a bit more structure to the recruitment drive readying the Edinburgh club for the 2018/19 Ladbrokes Premiership.
Saturday’s kick-off at Hamilton Academical brings much anticipation after the busiest summer in Hearts’ modern history. Three goalkeepers and ten outfield players have joined in a drastic overhaul. There could yet be one or two more arrivals but, already, Hearts look a different and more dynamic team.
Pace and width have been added through Jake Mulraney and the emergence of 19-year-old Callumn Morrison. Uche Ikpeazu, Steven MacLean and Steven Naismith offer competition for Kyle Lafferty in attack. Peter Haring is a versatile centre-back and Ben Garuccio looks capable of solving the problem left-back position.
Midfield has been entirely revamped, with Olly Lee, Oliver Bozanic, Ryan Edwards and Bobby Burns brought in. After the departure of record-breaking Scotland internationalist Jon McLaughlin, Zdenek Zlamal, Colin Doyle and Kevin Silva are the new goalkeepers.
Two successive 5-0 home victories against Cowdenbeath and Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Betfred Cup confirmed Hearts will again be a strong force at Tynecastle Park this year. They must carry that form to Lanarkshire to start the Premiership and look a like a group building confidence under manager Craig Levein.
Former defender Jimmy Sandison has noted the improvement from his position as Hearts TV co-commentator.
“I’m a wee bit old school. I’m not too convinced that amount of signings is always a good thing,” admitted Sandison. “Three, four or five is probably what I would normally look for. I like stability in a football club. I like my goalkeeper and defenders to be there for a number of years. I understand the game is changing and loyalty maybe isn’t a big thing in a lot of players’ minds.
“Hearts supporters do like a bit of stability. There’s always that worry when you’re wiping the slate clean at the end of a season and bringing 13 new players in. Will they all get on? Will they gel? Will there be good camaraderie? Will they be a success on the park? There are some huge questions.
“What you have seen in the last week or so is that the answer to all of those questions seems to be ‘yes’. The shape of the team and the energy looks excellent. I’ve had a few issues for the last couple of years: I’ve worried about the top end of the park and I’ve been worried about the width. I think Craig has dealt with those.
“We now have three or four good strikers and a bit of width. We are now doing things I thought we should have done a number of years ago. Myself and a lot of Hearts supporters are really impressed from the early games we’ve seen.
“You should never look too much into pre-season friendlies. The Betfred Cup is a competition but, this early in the season, it’s little steps and wee bits of positivity. I think we have made some really good ground in the last few games and the team is playing really well just now. Maybe some would say it’s a bit early, who knows? We will take that positivity just now.”
Hearts were criticised by their own support in recent seasons for not providing enough excitement. Sandison senses that might also be about to change.
“Most supporters want to sit in their seat looking forward to the game because they know they will be entertained. For a number of seasons now, I wouldn’t say the entertainment was that high. Looking at it now – the philosophy of switching the play, getting balls out wide, a big striker who is going to bully centre-halves, the movement of MacLean and Naismith, Olly Lee in midfield, Souttar and Berra at the back – there are some really good combinations and it looks exciting.
“The style of play is not one striker up front, which sometimes upsets supporters. I think you should always have two strikers at home and enterain. I think we’ve done that in the last couple of games.
“We have somebody up the top of the pitch [Ikpeazu] who looks like he can find the net. There is lots of good movement in midfield, there is width, one or two older heads and a lot of youngsters. The blend in the squad, for me, looks very good.
“I was a wee bit worried about McLaughlin leaving but Zlamal looks solid enough and there is a back-up there, too. You worry about the first team in the event of suspensions and injuries and who can come in from the periphery. The periphery of this team just now looks very exciting. The bench looks exciting and we have a number of talented young kids.
“Lafferty might not be getting a game for the next two or three weeks. If he doesn’t go to Rangers, then fine. That’s another positive.”
The timing of the squad transformation is key. In 2006, Hearts’ eastern European hierarchy tried to crowbar an entire new team into the dressing room mid-season. This time, everything is in place before the league kicks off.
“I think new players should be in four or five weeks before a season starts to do a full pre-season. If you change things mid-season, it can be like throwing a hand grenade into the dressing room. This is the right time to sign players. This group look like they are enjoying their football. I watch the body language and I see Naismith running about having a go at them. Christophe Berra does the same. I’m liking what I’m seeing.”