How serious injuries are ripping a strong Hearts squad apart for a second season running
Hearts’ remarkable and prolonged injury run shows no sign of abating.
For the second season in succession, a strong squad on paper is having the heart ripped out of it by major fitness issues to key players.
It is a truly astonishing situation which stretches way beyond “the every team gets injuries” line occasionally trotted out by anyone attempting to dismiss this sequence of misfortune as a minor irrelevance with regard to the team’s poor form under Craig Levein over the past 11 months. Injuries are, of course, part of football, and, in the increasingly fast-paced modern game, most teams will lose a few players to long-term issues and several others to minor niggles over the course of any season.
The thing that makes Hearts’ situation so extreme is that they have now literally lost at least half of their strongest starting XI to long-term injury two seasons running. By the end of October last year, at a time when they were six points clear at the top of the Premiership, Levein had lost, among others, Christophe Berra, John Souttar, Uche Ikpeazu and Steven Naismith to long-term injury, while Peter Haring was in the process of being worn down by a hernia that prematurely halted his campaign and led to other fitness issues that are still plaguing him now, a year down the line. This quintet were widely deemed to be Hearts’ five most influential players at the time of being struck down.
Now, at the end of September in a season when Hearts are deemed to have their most exciting squad for several years, the injury fates have proved to be no kinder than they were last term. Among others, Hearts have already lost Jamie Walker, Conor Washington, Souttar (again), Naismith (again) and Craig Halkett to long-term injury, while Haring continues to be sidelined. All six of these players would feature in the preferred starting XI of most Hearts supporters, and also, likely, in Levein’s. The prospect of ever seeing a Hearts team along the lines of Pereira, Smith, Halkett, Souttar, Hickey, Whelan, Haring, Walker, Meshino, Naismith, Washington looks more fanciful with each passing week as their very best players continue to drop on a routine basis.
A stick often used to beat the manager with amid his team’s poor league form since last October is that he is deemed to have one of the strongest squads in the league and should be getting far more from them. While this would certainly be the case if everyone were fit and fully firing, Levein has never had this luxury. Levein was buoyed by his summer transfer business but so far Glenn Whelan and Ryotaro Meshino are the only new signings who have managed to remain unscathed. Indeed, he has barely been able to put out anything resembling a strongest starting XI since the opening couple of games of last season.
While the number of games key players are missing is a major hindrance in itself, the diminishing effects of the injuries are also taking a toll on Levein’s ability to build a team capable of consistently competing at the top end of the table. Berra, for instance, was arguably the best centre-back in the Premiership, in a defensive sense at least, prior to his injury last August. Since returning to action in December he appears to have lost some of his assurance. Although still a perfectly capable defender, as he showed in recent away wins over Motherwell and Hibs, he has become prone to the odd lapse, the type of which rarely plagued him before his hamstring ripped off the bone in the home win over Celtic last August.
Likewise, Ikpeazu, despite first returning in February from the freak foot injury he sustained last autumn, has only in the past three or four matches looked like getting back to the high standard he showed in the early months of last term. For a professional footballer, it is rarely as simple as recovering from long-term injury, getting back in the team and automatically being back to your best - when a player misses two, three or more months of action, there is usually a long process involved before sharpness, durability and optimum effectiveness is restored. Sometimes players never fully recover from the effect of long-term injury. Given the length of time Haring and Naismith in particular have been out, it is hard to envisage them hitting the ground running whenever they eventually return to the team.
While losing key players for lengthy periods is never ideal, it would be slightly easier for Levein to deal with if all of his other players were staying fit and he was able to develop some consistency of selection within this group. Beyond the key men who have been lost to long-term injury in the early months of the last two campaigns, however, Levein also had to contend with notable injuries to the likes of Michael Smith, Jimmy Dunne, Harry Cochrane, Ben Garuccio, Demetri Mitchell and Callumn Morrison last term. Even Olly Lee, who was drifting out of favour in any case, was struck down by a serious injury on the last day of the league campaign, leaving Sean Clare, Oliver Bozanic and Steven MacLean as the only outfield players to have featured prominently over the past season and a bit who haven’t been struck down by injury.
In the early weeks of this term, in addition to the aforementioned big guns who have succumbed to long-term lay-offs, Levein has also had to do without Smith and Joel Pereira for more than one game, while Loic Damour became the latest player to be struck by the “injured in a match” curse this season when he had to be withdrawn in the first half against St Mirren on Saturday with a hamstring complaint. Following the earlier injury sustained by Halkett, it meant the manager had used two of his subs by the 39-minute mark at the end of a seven-day period in which his team had come through a gruelling Edinburgh derby away from home and 120 minutes of high-intensity Betfred Cup action against Aberdeen. As Hearts struggled to break down their well-organised hosts in Paisley, they could desperately have done with the option of being able to replace more than one of their off-form attacking players in their quest to find a winner.
More pertinently, on a day when Hearts failed to make their overall superiority count, particularly in the second half, Levein must ruefully have allowed himself a moment to wonder what difference the likes of Walker, Washington and Naismith, operating at full pelt and in tandem with Meshino and the improving Ikpeazu, would have made - not just to Saturday’s match, but also to the complexion of what has been a hitherto deflating season.