THE imminent arrival of a Nigerian international left-back with World Cup experience weighs heavily on Kevin McHattie’s mind.
Hearts should complete the signing of 24-year-old Juwon Oshaniwa this week, leaving McHattie facing a fight for his position.
He knows Oshaniwa is likely to be head coach Robbie Neilson’s first choice, fitness permitting. Standing in the sunshine at Deepdale on Saturday, McHattie’s thoughts were as clear as the blue skies above. He must prove himself to Neilson and the Hearts coaching staff and try to stave off the threat to his place. It won’t be easy. The 22-year-old is desperate to show he has a future at Tynecastle. His contract expires in 12 months, making this one of the biggest seasons of his career.
“I’ve just got to do what I can in training and show what I’m worth,” he explained. “Competition is important and everyone wants a place in the starting line-up. It’s a big season for me and staying fit is key, especially with the situation I’m in because I’ve got a year left on my contract. I’m looking forward to proving myself.
“I’m happy here. Hearts is a fantastic family club. The fans travel in numbers and Tynecastle is full for every home game. This is a place I’m happy at and I want to stay here. It’s obviously down to the gaffer and his decisions, which I respect. We’ll see what happens in the future.
“The gaffer is thinking about injuries and about the team and about where we’re going to finish in the league. The new boy isn’t here yet but hopefully I can prove what I’m worth. I got injured last season and Adam [Eckersley] did really well [in my position], which was a credit to him. It’s the same again in terms of competition. Juwon is very experienced and strong so the competition will make me better.”
Saturday indicated Hearts have more work to do before they are fully ready for the new campaign. They matched Preston North End in the first 45 minutes in front of 1614 travelling fans. However, they wilted after the break. A rare mistake by goalkeeper Neil Alexander presented Preston striker Joe Garner with the winning goal on 65 minutes. Alexander’s clearance across the face of his penalty area was short and Garner rose to head in from 18 yards, despite the keeper’s recovery effort.
Neilson insisted that playing football from defence is a risk he will persevere with.
“Preston played pretty much their strongest team and I thought we handled the physicality really well. They are strong at set-plays and I’m pleased we stood up to that.
“I’m disappointed to lose the goal the way we did because we ask our players to play football from the back. We’ll lose goals like that during the season and we just need to take it on the chin. The benefits we get from playing out from the back will far outweigh anything like that. It’s the risk you take.
“Neil will learn from it. We want to play football. If we didn’t want to lose goals like that, we’d just shell the ball up the park. Nobody would learn anything from that. It’s part of football. We’ll take it on the chin and we’ll go and pass the ball again next time. Neil is a top keeper and he’s good with the ball at his feet. He’s disappointed to lose a goal like that.”
Alexander made three impressive stops before conceding as Preston took control of proceedings. The Hearts midfield missed the experience of Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben, who were rested after recovering from minor niggles. They will play in Sunday’s final warm-up match against Everton.
“I was thinking about putting them on for the last half an hour. We want to do well in these games but the first game of the season is more important,” said Neilson. “The two of them have been back in training for five or six days. They’ll get another five or six days and we’ll look at them for the Everton game. They should be back on it by then. Alim [Ozturk] is in the same boat. We didn’t want to put them on at the weekend and then they possibly re-injure themselves.”
One big positive from the trip to Lancashire was the performance of 17-year-old midfielder Sean McKirdy. He more than held his own in a physically demanding game against hard and experienced opponents. He also cleared Tom Clarke’s header off his own goal line after only 12 minutes.
“He’s a good player and I was delighted with him,” said Neilson. “I had no hesitation putting him on. We spoke on Saturday morning about him getting back in and covering the goal in the second phase. Twelve minutes into the game, he does it and prevents a goal.
“It was a great outing for him. I thought he tired towards the end but he’s played a lot of games in pre-season. He’s definitely one who will be about the first-team squad, although he’s still an under-20 player.”
Preston (4-3-1-2): Jones; Clarke, Wright (Little 69), Huntington (Heaton 85), Woods (Anderton 77); Johnson, Welsh (Brownhill 69), Gallagher (Browne 69); Keane (Davies 69); Beckford (Hugill 69), Garner (Ryan 77). Subs: James, Heaton.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; Paterson, McGhee, Augustyn, McHattie; McKirdy (L Smith 85), Pallardo (Anderson 51); King, Walker (El Hassnaoui 83), Nicholson; Sow (Reilly 60). Subs: Hamilton, Ozturk, Buaben, Oliver, Gomis.
Referee: Darren Handley.