Inspire players and fans, restore Fortress Tynecastle, look after Aaron Hickey - Eight things the new Hearts boss must prioritise
Daniel Stendel, the former Hannover 96 and Barnsley manager, remains the hot favourite to become Hearts’ next permanent boss. Here are eight points Craig Levein’s successor in the hotseat will have to give consideration to if he is to get the Tynecastle side back on track
The thing that is so alarming about Hearts’ current predicament is that they have been struggling so badly with what is widely deemed to be their strongest squad, reputation-wise at least, since exiting administration. Indeed, it is some time since Hearts were able to boast so many reputable options in attack - Steven Naismith, Jamie Walker, Uche Ikpeazu and Conor Washington - or a player of Glenn Whelan’s quality in midfield. Yet Hearts have collectively fallen badly short, with no individuals bar Michael Smith able to display their best form on a consistent basis over the past year or so. There is a malaise throughout the squad and the new manager must possess the required motivational skills to raise morale and belief levels within a group of players who seem to have totally lost their way.
Connect with the support
Large sections of the fanbase have grown disillusioned with Hearts and there now appears to be a clear disconnect between supporters and club. After the at-times toxic relationship between fans and the previous two managers, Ian Cathro and Craig Levein, Hearts need a figurehead who will unite everyone behind him, bring a bit of passion to the party and who has the ability to convince supporters through his rhetoric and his demeanour that he is a man equipped to shoulder the high expectations at Tynecastle. Paulo Sergio was arguably the last Hearts manager to achieve this.
Sort out goalkeeping position
The goalkeeping department appears in need of strengthening. Joel Pereira is currently in command of the gloves but the 23-year-old hasn’t looked particularly convincing since arriving on loan from Manchester United in August. While he isn’t making a raft of clangers, he certainly isn’t excelling and, perhaps understandably for a relatively young goalkeeper, he looks ill at ease behind the current Hearts defence. Zdenek Zlámal has had some exceptional moments for Hearts but he is also susceptible to wild errors of judgment, while Colin Doyle, currently injured, has barely featured since his howler at Fir Park earlier this year. Neither of the three available options have displayed the authority or consistency of Jon McLaughlin, the Hearts goalkeeper of two seasons ago.
Look after Aaron Hickey
Hickey was sensational when he first burst on to the scene in the closing weeks of last season and the 17-year-old left-back continued his remarkable form in the early weeks of this campaign. However, being played every week in a struggling team appears to be doing Hickey no favours at present. Without being directly at fault for any of them, all three of Kilmarnock’s goals last weekend came down his side and he was substituted at half-time. Hickey has been shunted about all over the defence in recent months and, although it could be argued he is benefitting from learning on the job, the teenager is at risk of having his development stunted by being relied so heavily upon in a team struggling as badly as Hearts are. The new man must manage Hickey carefully to allow him to fulfil his clear potential and become the flag-bearer for an academy in which a lot has been invested since administration.
Add some pace to the squad
Evening News columnist Gary Mackay wrote recently that the Hearts squad, personnel-wise, is in reasonably good order apart from the lack of pace. It is hard to argue with this assertion. Jake Mulraney is Hearts’ quickest attacker but is struggling to get in the team at present. Sean Clare and Jamie Walker can both drive forward with the ball, but there is a general shortage of attackers at the club who can put fear into the opposition with their pace. This reduces the team’s ability to counter-attack effectively and needs addressed, ideally in the January transfer window.
Make big decisions in defence
When everyone is fit, Hearts have a strong array of centre-back options, with Christophe Berra, Craig Halkett, John Souttar, Clevid Dikamona and Michael Smith all equipped to play there. When at his focused best, as he was in wins at Fir Park and Easter Road earlier this season, captain Berra is still the best out-and-out defender among this group of centre-backs, but he has proved increasingly susceptible to goal-costing lapses over the past year. In addition, the skipper is not as comfortable in playing out from the back as Halkett or Souttar, both of whom will have strong claims of returning to the starting lineup when fit.
Restore Fortress Tynecastle
Hearts have had just four home league wins in the last 13 months, which is never going to be good enough. Strong form at Tynecastle is usually the foundation for any decent Hearts side, but teams of all standards are now routinely heading to Gorgie and leaving with points. The home players seem inhibited by the growing tension around a stadium which should be intimidating rather than inviting for all visitors. The new manager somehow needs to get Hearts playing with tempo and confidence at Tynecastle once more in order to get supporters behind the team and make home advantage count.
Don’t get relegated
It would go down as one of the biggest calamities in Scottish football history if this Hearts squad, expensively assembled and featuring several high-profile players, were to get relegated. Everyone connected with the club will be praying that the correct managerial appointment will swiftly elevate the team away from the danger zone, but as things stand Hearts are in serious bother. Joint bottom of the league with a formidable trip to Ibrox on Sunday kicking off a testing December fixture list, it is not beyond possibility that Hearts will find themselves in 12th place at some point over the next few weeks. The new man will have little time to find his feet.