Experience is clearly imperative in the mind of Hearts coach Ian Cathro. Three of his four signings to date – Aaron Hughes, Malaury Martin and Andraz Struna – carry a wealth of footballing knowledge.
They are all mature, streetwise and battle-hardened footballers having played in some of Europe’s toughest leagues. Now comes a different test altogether: Stark’s Park, Kirkcaldy.
Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie against Raith Rovers could see a new-look Hearts defence line up for the first time. From the back four which faced Aberdeen in the club’s last fixture on December 30, only John Souttar seems guaranteed to start this weekend. The ensuing three weeks have witnessed major changes at Tynecastle as Cathro conducts a mid-winter overhaul. Defenders Igor Rossi and Alim Ozturk have been transferred out along with striker Juanma Delgado. Robbie Muirhead has followed Tony Watt to England, while left-back Faycal Rherras is with Morocco at the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon. Right-back Callum Paterson is out injured until the autumn. All of the above accelerated Cathro’s plans to find reinforcements during the January transfer window.
He has gone for experience in abundance.
Hughes is 37 and still an established international defender with Northern Ireland. Midfielder Martin, 28, has played in France, England, Switzerland and Norway. At 27, and with 25 Slovenia caps, Struna is a wily and hardy right-back. The 24-year-old left-back Lennard Sowah, signed from Hamilton Academical, is also likely to feature on Sunday.
Hughes, Souttar and Sowah are all expected to start. Assuming Cathro delpoys a back four as opposed to a three, the only uncertainty is whether 20-year-old Liam Smith starts on the right ahead of Struna. The Slovenian is drastically short of match practice having been without a club since leaving PAS Giannina of Greece last summer.
Souttar sat down with the Evening News and reflected on all the comings and goings. He is determined to benefit from the upheaval.
“It’s been a very quick turnover with people leaving and getting to know the new boys. It’s refreshing seeing new faces, though,” he remarked. “It’s a unique situation, really. Usually you get one or two going but for a whole defence to change is pretty unusual. It’s good for me. I’m playing around other people, different faces, adapting my game again. I think I’ve played enough games to step up as well.”
Indeed, he will be one of those stressing what the new boys should expect from a Scottish Cup fourth-round tie in the tight confines of Stark’s Park. “The boys who have been here will tell them what they’re in for. They’ll know what it’s going to be like. We are in no doubt about what it will be like. Raith will be right up for it and I think you need to be to win a cup tie. That’s how cup shocks happen. One team goes there and doesn’t play to their maximum and then you have a shock. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“It’s a cup tie, they’ll be fired up for it and so should we. It will be a good game, a tough game. There are a lot of links between the clubs with the ex-Hearts boys so that will be quite unique as well.
“The gaffer obviously trusts the boys who have signed and they’re all good players. They wouldn’t be signing for Hearts if they didn’t have the ability. I think they will be fine. Struna hasn’t really trained much so we don’t know too much about him. We know he’s an internationalist so he’s got to have a massive amount of quality to have played a lot of games for his country.
“Sowah has only trained with us for a few days so it’s hard to tell but I’m sure he’ll be a good player.”
The lack of insight highlights the speed of change. Souttar has formed a firm and positive opinion on one new colleague, though. “To have Aaron Hughes, a guy who has played 450 English Premier League games, can only be good for younger players. We can learn from him and benefit from his experience about the dressing room,” he said.
“Having Aaron there, just speaking to you during training and giving you tips, it’s like another Don Cowie coming in. He knows what qualities you need and how to look after yourself. Everyone is learning from him because he’s been there and done it in England, which is where young footballers want to get to.
“He has played in a lot of different situations in his career. He won’t panic. He’s probably seen it all. You need to have that sort of experience and knowledge.”
He won’t necessarily know all of Hearts’ Scottish Cup history but Souttar can help fill in any blanks. He is approaching his first anniversary at Tynecastle and is acutely aware of what this competition means. “The Scottish Cup is massive for Hearts. If you look back when they won it, it was a big deal and I think it’s a huge tournament for the club. We know that as a group,” he stressed.
“We can’t put too much pressure on ourselves but pressure is good to an extent. We need to win on Sunday and, hopefully, go on a cup run. It would be great to win it and do well but we need to take one tie at a time. We have to go to Raith Rovers and it’s going to be hard up there, no two ways about it.”
He recalls previous finals involving his current team and had a Jambo cult hero for a team-mate at his previous club.
“I remember the final against Gretna and I remember the 5-1 game. Ryan McGowan never let us forget that when I was at Dundee United with him. He reminded us about it quite a lot. I know how much of a big deal it was. He said it was an unbelievable experience and he’s still famous for his goal in the final. It just shows you what an effect it can have on everyone.”