Steven MacLean hails new forward strength at Hearts
There was a time last winter when Steven MacLean was the only notable attacker available to Hearts manager Craig Levein.
Steven Naismith and Uche Ikpeazu were injured, Jake Mulraney, Sean Clare and Craig Wighton were struggling in their early months at the club, and everyone at Tynecastle was pining for the January arrival of David Vanecek to rescue the situation.
The situation looks significantly more promising for Hearts at the onset of the new season, with the 36-year-old MacLean now one of around a dozen attacking options currently in contention to be involved in the campaign ahead.
Last season’s main attacking trio of MacLean, Ikpeazu and Naismith - due to rejoin the club in the coming weeks - has been augmented by the arrival of Jamie Walker, a proven attacking midfielder in Hearts colours, and Conor Washington, a current Northern Ireland internationalist.
The attacking department is further enhanced by the progress of Mulraney and Clare, who have grown into life at Hearts and now look equipped to be regular starters, albeit the Englishman Clare has dropped back into a slightly deeper role this summer.
Then there is the young trio of Aidan Keena, Dario Zanatta and Anthony McDonald, who will be hoping to make their presence felt after spending time out on loan last season, while Callumn Morrison, Lewis Moore, Conor Smith and Wighton are also in the mix.
Even allowing for the likelihood that some of these attackers will go out on loan in the weeks ahead, Levein is positively spoilt for choice in the front area of the team. “We’ve got an array of talent there,” said MacLean. “We’ve still got Naisy to come in and we had Jake, Jamie, Uche and Aidan on the bench against Cowdenbeath on Tuesday. It’s good for the club and it’s good for the attackers because we’re all going to have to be on our toes. If anyone’s not on their toes, or not doing what the manager wants, they’ll be out the team.
“It’s not just in the forward areas though, we’ve got options all over the pitch. We’ve also got Peter Haring to come in, then there’s boys like Halks (Craig Halkett) coming into the team and making an impact, so it all bodes well for the season ahead.”
McDonald currently appears to be among the most on-form of Hearts’ attackers. The 18-year-old winger scored in the friendly against Inverness Caledonian Thistle a week past Monday and then netted his first competitive goal in the 2-0 Betfred Cup win over Cowdenbeath on Tuesday.
“Ant’s got a big chance in the game,” said MacLean. “He took his goal really well on Tuesday and he had other opportunities as well. You can see he’s got great quality, but he’s just got to do that other side of the game as well and he’ll get better. If he keeps listening and learning from the manager, the rest of the staff and the other players, he can have a really big future in the game.”
MacLean was partnered on Tuesday by Washington, a striker with high hopes of rediscovering the scoring form that brought him 33 goals in two years at Peterborough before his move to QPR in January 2016. “I think me and Conor compliment each other well so hopefully we can forge a good partnership,” said MacLean. “But there will be partnerships with other strikers as well so it’s just a case of all of us trying to do as well as we can and making sure we’re ready when the manager calls on us.”
MacLean is confident that this summer’s reboot of the squad will ensure there is no repeat of the slump that undermined Hearts last season.
A sprinkling of new arrivals - Walker, Halkett and Washington - allied to the ongoing improvement within so many young players already at the club ensure optimism levels are high.
“It’s up to us to make sure this season is better than last season,” said MacLean.
“We started the campaign really well then it fizzled out in the league but we had a strong finish with the cup final, when I thought we were excellent.
“The squad’s really competitive this season so it’s important that we go right through the season and do well all the way through it instead of just in patches.”