Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin deserves a Scotland call-up after his imperious form this season, according to manager Craig Levein.
However, Levein tempered the praise by admitting the 30-year-old is likely to leave Tynecastle when his contract expires at the end of the season.
McLaughlin set a new club record of eight successive clean sheets during December and January and Levein sees no reason why he shouldn’t be rewarded with international recognition. The former Scotland manager is desperate to keep the Edinburgh-born keeper as his No.1 but the volume of money on offer in England makes an extended deal difficult.
Hearts have held several rounds of talks with McLaughlin in the hope of persuading him to stay and will not relinquish hope that an agreement can be reached before the summer. Levein regards the former Burton Albion man the equal of any of his peers in the Ladbrokes Premiership having brought him to Scotland as a free agent last August.
He conceded it looks increasinly likely that he will again be seeking a new goalkeeper before the start of season 2018/19.
First, he would like to see McLaughlin named in the Scotland squad. The national team remains managerless almost four months since Gordon Strachan’s exit. Friendlies are in place for later this year, with Costa Rica and Hungary first up in March and then a trip to South and Central America to play Peru and Mexico.
“I don’t see why Jon shouldn’t be knocking on the door, I really don’t,” Levein said as he discussed McLaughlin’s progress and future in a frank interview with the Evening News. “He has been in really good form and he’s been really solid for us.
“I would love to keep him here next season but financially I don’t think that’s going to be possible. I would love to have him at Hearts for another couple of seasons. In fact, I’d keep him for longer than that if I could. His form has been that strong. He’s experienced and he’s calm. He makes saves at important moments in matches. Regarding Scotland, I don’t see why not?
“When he was down in England, the reason he didn’t get a club last year was he got an injury. We picked him up at the tail end of the summer. The idea was just to get him back playing and get him back in form. I haven’t watched all of Jon McLaughlin’s games before he came here but he’s certainly in form. He is as good as any other keeper in the league as far as I’m concerned.”
McLaughlin did not lose a goal between December 2 and January 27 and is firmy established as Levein’s first choice. His arrival forced last season’s No.1, Jack Hamilton, on to the substitutes’ bench and he has used his one-year deal in Scotland to revitalise his career.
Tuesday night’s 3-1 defeat by Celtic in Glasgow would have been heavier but for McLaughlin’s expertise. He saved from Moussa Dembele, Odsonne Edouard and Scott Sinclair in a variety of one-against-one situations but was powerless to prevent the hosts recording a comfortable win.
His performance didn’t go unnoticed by the Hearts management team. “I thought Jon was magnificent, as were John Souttar and Christophe Berra in our defence,” said Levein. “The way we played and the system we used means they don’t get any cover. Normally at the back, you always have one spare player who provides cover but we didn’t play like that at Celtic Park. That meant we were easier to play through when we gave the ball away.
“One criticism I had was that we should have taken better care of the ball. A lot of times Celtic broke on us from our sloppiness in midfield. I’ve also got to recognise that they were probably up for it a bit more after the last game when we won 4-0.”
The partnership between Souttar and Berra is becoming stronger by the week and contributed majorly to the defensive solidity over the last two months.
“Christophe Berra is my type of player. I like centre-backs who can defend,” said Levein. “Then you’ve got John Souttar. If you can get a centre-back who can defend and then play football on top of that, then it’s great.
“That combination always works for me and I see it as really important. It has been a fairly significant factor in all those clean sheets.”
The clean sheet run ended last weekend when Motherwell scrambled a stoppage-time equaliser at Tynecastle. The midweek loss to Celtic brought a conclusion to Hearts’ 12-game unbeaten run, which dated back to November 5 against Kilmarnock at BT Murrayfield.
Levein is taking both blows on the chin and remains philosophical. “These things were always going to end, it’s not a big deal for me,” he commented. “I said the clean sheet record and the unbeaten run would come to an end at some point.
“It’s good that it took so long to come to an end and Jon was one of the reasons for that. He had to make some good saves on Tuesday and we had to make some decent challenges defensively, and I thought we did that. I was disappointed to lose the match but I thought our character was really good. We kept fighting right to the death.”
Levein must put thoughts of McLaughlin’s future to one side for now. Hearts face back-to-back games against St Johnstone in the league and Scottish Cup as they try to secure Europa League qualification.