Jon McLaughlin is ready to discuss a contract extension with Hearts after recording a club record sixth successive clean sheet.
The goalkeeper signed a one-year deal when he arrived in August but, after Saturday’s historic goalless draw with Aberdeen, he revealed he hopes to hold talks with manager Craig Levein about a longer agreement.
Saves from Adam Rooney and Scott McKenna were the highlights of another impressive display by McLaughlin at Pittodrie. He now enters the Tynecastle annals as the keeper with more consecutive clean sheets than any other in the club’s 143-year history.
If he wished to strike while the iron is hot, now would be the time to pose that contract question. The 30-year-old won’t force the issue but conceded he is settled in Edinburgh – where he was born before forging a career in England – and is open to a chat about a long-term deal.
“It’s a great club to be play at and city to live in. It’s our original home and we’re having a great time here,” explained McLaughlin. “There are lots of factors to weigh into that. I’ve spoken to the gaffer and hopefully we can sit down at some stage and see where we’re at.
“At the moment we’re just happy to be concentrating on the football and things are going well for us. During the winter break there’s an opportunity. The January transfer window will mean there’s a lot of things on their minds so I’ll leave it to the powers that be. I’m happy and enjoying my football and that is my focus at the moment. When things are going great it’s always a positive marker to stay at a club like this.”
Levein has maximised a squad ravaged by injury to put together a nine-game unbeaten run which takes Hearts flying into 2018. They had managed five games without losing a goal on eight separate occasions in the past – 1905, 1921, 1936, 1973, 1988, 1991, 1993 and 2010. Six in a row was beyond them until Saturday and the significance wasn’t lost on McLaughlin.
Even a late red card for striker Kyle Lafferty for a challenge on Aberdeen’s Graeme Shinnie couldn’t dampen the mood in the away camp.
“It’s a fantastic feeling for myself and all of the boys because it’s a joint effort, the way we play as a team and a unit,” he said. “It’s fantastic obviously for myself but it’s not about individual plaudits. We’re all feeling the same way and it’s a great achievement. It takes a lot of hard work. You don’t get that success, that run of clean sheets, if you don’t work well as a group and work incredibly hard on the training ground.
“It takes a complete 90-minute performance to get a clean sheet. It’s not like a bit of luck where you might nick a goal. To do it six games in a row takes a massive amount of work. The only unfortunate thing is that too many of the games in the run have been nil-nils – the Edinburgh derby, the away game against St Johnstone and now the Aberdeen game. While it’s good to get this run of clean sheets, we also want to make sure we turn these games into wins.”
Easier said than done when you have a full-blown injury crisis to contend with. Hearts arrived at Pittodrie minus Jamie Walker, Arnaud Djoum, Ross Callachan, Prince Buaben, Connor Randall, Rafal Grzelak, Krystian Nowak, Ashley Smith-Brown and Rory Currie. That resulted in six teenagers in the visitors’ matchdays squad – Anthony McDonald, Harry Cochrane and Jamie Brandon in the starting line-up, with Daniel Baur, Alex Petkov and Euan Henderson amongst the substitutes. Lafferty also started on the bench.
They lost another two to injury before half-time as Michael Smith and McDonald were forced off. It was always likely to take a dogged, defiant performance to take anything from an experienced Aberdeen team sitting second in the Ladbrokes Premiership. And so it proved. In fact, Hearts were at their resilient best at the back.
Aberdeen attacked in numbers and dominated the second half but were met by a wall of resistance near the opposition penalty area. Chief constructors were Christophe Berra, Aaron Hughes and John Souttar, the three visiting centre-backs who blocked, headed, tackled and cleared anything coming their way. Any time Aberdeen did break through, McLaughlin sprung into action.
He instinctively dived to his left to push Rooney’s close-range effort round the post in the first half before turning McKenna’s header over the crossbar during the home team’s sescond-half onslaught. Then he modestly attempted to share out the credit.
“It’s nice that people point to the goalkeeper and defence for the record the way strikers get credit for goals. However, I’ll be the first to say that I couldn’t have done this on my own and in some of these last six games I’ve had nothing to do. The defence have left me a spectator on occasions,” said the goalkeeper. Strangely, Hearts created the better scoring chances in this game despite Aberdeen’s pressure. David Milinkovic should have scored when sent through on goal by Esmael Goncalves in the first half but was thwarted by Joe Lewis’ one-handed stop.
That combination reversed to tee up Goncalves with ten minutes left but the uneven turf caused him to shoot high into the crowd. Lafferty was sent off on 88 minutes for a lunge from behind on Shinnie. With only minutes remaining, there was no way the ten men would wilt.
McLaughlin ranks this new defensive record as one of his finest achievements. “I’ve had seasons where we’ve done well over the course of the season. With Burton Albion, when we got promoted to the Championship, we managed to get clean sheets in half of our games – 23 out of 46.
“That was brilliant but they were spread out so this is great and really shows that unity and bond we’ve got now that we’re managing to string it together in a run of tough games. We’ve had Motherwell in there, Celtic, Hibs and Aberdeen. It gives us a platform and that’s why we’re happy with it and we want to continue doing that. It means if we can nick one of those chances like the type we created on Saturday at Pittodrie then it would give us great wins on the road.
“Apart from Celtic, not many teams score a hatful of goals. They offer a solid foundation and make themseves incredibly hard to beat. It only takes carving out one or two opportunities and if you can be clinical then that will get you three points. It doesn’t always have to be flowing football where you crush teams. Sometimes it can just be that the moment a team slips you take advantage, go away with a 1-0 and say ‘thank you very much’.”