The 22-year-old former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder signed for the Tynecastle club in September amid a wave of hype, but took some time to make his presence felt in a maroon jersey, leaving many supporters underwhelmed. Although he has not yet hit top gear on a consistent basis, there has been a notable upturn in Clare’s productivity in recent months. The attacking midfielder has become a regular starter and has scored four goals in his last 12 games, including three match-winners.
Levein said on Thursday that Clare was “a bit of a project for us and gradually with games he’s starting to prove his worth” before predicting that he will be “a really good player in the next year or two.” The Londoner has been reassured by the belief his manager has shown in him and feels his ongoing backing was crucial to helping him overcome a sticky start to his Hearts career.
“That’s one of the main reasons I came here, I knew the manager and staff would back me even if things weren’t going to plan,” said Clare. “It was always going to be difficult coming up to a different style of football with an injury, and the manager understood that and he has really shown faith in me, as have all the staff.
“Without that, things may not be where they are now, I may not have been able to progress. So I am thankful and appreciative of it and hopefully I can keep repaying him.”
Clare’s match-winning goals against Dundee and Partick Thistle over the past week have injected some fresh impetus into Hearts’ season after a frustrating six-game run in which their only victory came against Auchinleck Talbot. The 1-0 triumph at Dens Park last Saturday kept the Edinburgh side within striking distance of Aberdeen and Kilmarnock in the battle for a Europa League spot, while Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Thistle served to set up a Scottish Cup semi-final showdown with Championship side Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The remainder of the season is now alive with possibilities for Hearts after a period when things looked to be fizzling out.
“It has been a good week for the team and that is the main thing, getting the three points and getting through to a semi final,” said Clare ahead of today’s trip to Hamilton Accies. “It is massive for us at this time in the league and massive for the club to get a good day out at Hampden – the boys are happy.
“I wouldn’t really call it a form dip before – we just weren’t grinding out the results that we needed to. The last few games we have shown we have a bit more resilience than we maybe have shown in the past and that is really important if we want to progress in the league and in the cup. We have turned a new page and hopefully we can keep that going.
“The aim is to get into Europe through the league. The cup would be another great option if we could go on and win it, but that’s a difficult thing to do. I feel we just have to try and win every league game we can rather than focus on the cup.
“All the games coming up now are very important. We have closed the gap on the teams above us over the past few weeks and we need to keep putting points on the board now, so these next games are massive. We are playing with a bit more composure and steel, and if we can keep that up until the end of the season we’ll have a great chance of moving up the league. We want to get to the final and we want to get into Europe – that’s the minimum we are looking for. But we know there’s a long way to go and it’s going to be difficult, we need to keep working hard and progressing.”
Clare is heartened by the fact his team seem to be coping better without the injured Steven Naismith than they did during his two-month absence earlier in the season. “Obviously, losing a big player like Naisy is difficult for any team and unfortunately the last time we also lost some other big players,” said Clare. “Now we have a few of them back and although we have lost Naisy we have definitely grown as a team and are stronger as a team in terms of blocking teams out and sticking together when things are tough. That will benefit us in the later stages of the season.”