Gary Mackay: Hearts must use international break to regroup

International breaks sometimes come at a good time and sometimes come at a bad time. I would have to say that this one has come at a really good time for Hearts.

Friday, 22nd March 2019, 5:30 am
Hearts manager Craig Levein and his assistant Austin MacPhee oversee training. Pic: SNS
Hearts manager Craig Levein and his assistant Austin MacPhee oversee training. Pic: SNS

It sounds as if we are getting our work done for next season in terms of signing players up and extending contracts. Credit where it’s due, that is all well and good and should stand us in good stead come the summer. However, it isn’t of any great interest to me right now.

I was talking very positively in my last column about reaching the Scottish Cup final, possibly getting into Europe or lifting the trophy. That would be fabulous for the Hearts but ultimately we need to be striving to get up beside Kilmarnock and closer to Aberdeen in the league. We can’t let the team below us, our Edinburgh rivals, get any closer.

Last week’s defeat at Hamilton was hugely disappointing in that context. Hibs are now breathing down our necks and after the international break we have three of the most difficult fixtures you could get prior to the Premiership splitting in two – Aberdeen at home, Rangers away and Hibs at home. In that spell, there could be a gap opening up between ourselves and Kilmarnock which obviously wouldn’t be good regarding our chances of European football.

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Budgets are relative in connection to Aberdeen but, between Hearts and Kilmarnock, there is only one team with a budget worth talking about.

The three teams we play before the break will probably be facing us again after the break. I don’t know if any other teams in the top six have that run of games between now and the end of the campaign.

Having seen the team for the Hamilton match, I was slightly concerned what kind of consistency we would get after the Scottish Cup win against Partick Thistle last midweek. We made four changes and I know some players don’t like the synthetic surface. We had four days between the games and Uche Ikpeazu got a rest.

Sometimes you can think you need to change due to the way the opposition play, but at times you need to let the opposition change to the way you play. It’s great having flexibility when you need it. Maybe football has changed now but I would always think that the guys in possession of the jersey started the next game if they got a positive result.

We are still talking about Steven Naismith not being available and how his absence is felt. We have used more than 30 players in the first team this season. It is concerning for me as a supporter and ex-player if we are striving to find a formula that works without him at this point in the campaign.

That is one positive we could get from the international break because it will give the coaches more time to find that combination until Naismith returns. Hopefully that will happen before the season is completely finished because he has had such a positive influence on Hearts since he arrived.

We have had top players in the past like the Rudi Skacels and John Robertsons, but we managed without them at times whenever they were injured or suspended.

To think that, at this point in the season, we are finding it hard to manage without Naismith is a real difficulty for Hearts. Especially given the number of players we have to choose from in the first-team squad. Plus there is also the longer-term view and the fact that he possibly won’t be at Tynecastle come the start of next season.