Kye Rowles injury latest, a new Hearts captain and key players back fit
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Full-back Michael Smith and midfielder Cammy Devlin were due to train at Riccarton today after ankle and hamstring issues respectively. Both could feature in the fifth-round tie against Hamilton Academical with a quarter-final place at stake.
Having beaten their Edinburgh rivals Hibs with a comfortable and memorable 3-0 victory at Easter Road in the previous round, Hearts are overwhelming favourites against the team sitting bottom of the Scottish Championship table. They must do without one of their most talismanic players, however, with captain Lawrence Shankland suspended.
He was red carded for two cautions near the end of the Hibs tie and will watch from the ZLX Stadium stand on Friday. Rowles’ availability is a major plus given his exemplary form since arriving from Central Coast Mariners last summer. Craig Halkett’s season-ending injury makes the Australia World Cup centre-back all the more vital to manager Robbie Neilson’s cause.
Questions were asked when the reliable 24-year-old was replaced by striker Garang Kuol with 20 minutes remaining in last week’s 3-1 victory over Dundee United. Hearts were 1-0 down at the time, so it was simply a case of introducing more attacking threat which ultimately paid off for the hosts.
“Kye has just got a wee problem with his toe that we are managing, but he is fine,” Neilson told the Evening News. “I expect Cammy Devlin and Michael Smith both to be back. They are due back training today so hopefully they will be available. The other longer-term injured guys are still a bit away. Liam Boyce is back running but it will be another couple of months yet before he is anywhere near us. Peter Haring is doing bits of training but he is still quite a bit away yet.”
Reporting injury updates has been an all-too-frequent part of Neilson’s job this season. Aside from those above, club captain Craig Gordon, midfielder Beni Baningime and winger Gary Mackay-Steven are all sidelined with long-term issues. The absence of Gordon, Halkett and Shankland necessitates a new captain against Hamilton.
Haring took the armband last August when Gordon was left out against Celtic in Glasgow. Shankland became skipper after the goalkeeper suffered a double leg-break on Christmas Eve and has since led by example. His presence will be missed in South Lanarkshire and Neilson is due to decide over the next 24 hours who should be stand-in captain.
Candidates are likely to include Stephen Kingsley, Robert Snodgrass, Andy Halliday and, if fit enough to play from the start, the Northern Irishman Smith. “I haven’t thought about it yet but we will need to sit down and see who is going to be playing first. Then we need to decide who is going to be captain,” said Neilson. “There are a few candidates but first and foremost I will pick the team and then the captain needs to be one of the guys who is starting, obviously.”
There is no temptation to rotate the squad or rest anyone against a team from the league below. Hearts made clear their Scottish Cup ambitions at the start of the campaign and covet a place in the final for the fourth time in the last five years.
“It’s another game but it’s a huge game. It’s a cup game, a one-off,” said Neilson. “You can’t take it easy in these games and rotate players. For us it will be: Strongest team on the park, go and win the game.
“We had a great result against Hibs away from home and this is another away tie for us. It’s against a Championship team but it’s on astroturf under the lights. We will have a great support there, it’s really important that we put on a performance and get through. It’s important for the club to get through in the cups, reach finals and try to win it.
“We’ve been to three of the last four Scottish Cup finals so we want to take the next step, which would be fantastic. Hopefully the experience of the last few years will stand the boys in good stead as well as that hunger to try and get that final step.”
Last weekend’s comeback will shape his thoughts to some degree when picking a starting XI. Hearts are likely to be dispatched from the away dressing room with orders to start the match in an energetic and aggressive fashion having conceded goals inside ten minutes in their last two games against Rangers and United.
“We lost the early goal last week and, although we had a lot of possession in the game, we didn’t really create much,” recalled Neilson. “The slick passing is something we need to get better at. The second half was much better and we showed good resilience. I always thought that getting the first goal in the second half would change the game and that proved to be the case.”
A familiar face awaits them in the form of Hamilton manager John Rankin. He spent five years coaching Hearts’ youth team before heading west in 2021 to assist then-Accies manager Stuart Taylor. Rankin was promoted last summer and is now plotting the downfall of his former employers.
“I know Ranks very well from his time here,” said Neilson. “Hamilton had a difficult start to the season but they have picked up recently. They made a lot of new signings as well. Connor Smith joined them on loan and I saw he scored at the weekend there. It was some finish as well. He won’t be available to play against us but there’s no doubt Accies have picked up in recent weeks.”