Neilson: Hearts were heading north with nothing

The five Hearts players on Scotland Under-21 duty last week were all affected by the virus which first hit Billy King, on loan at Rangers
The five Hearts players on Scotland Under-21 duty last week were all affected by the virus which first hit Billy King, on loan at Rangers
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Little did anyone at Hearts know that the virus which caused Billy King, their winger currently on loan at Rangers, to be sent home from Scotland Under-21 duty a week ago would ultimately lead to the postponement of their Premiership fixture at Inverness tonight.

King and Craig Slater, the Kilmarnock midfielder, both succumbed to illness ahead of the European Championship qualifier against Northern Ireland. All five Hearts players in Ricky Sbragia’s squad would belatedly feel the effects of the contagious bug which their two colleagues had contracted.

Neil Alexander and Jack Hamilton

Neil Alexander and Jack Hamilton

John Souttar, the Scotland Under-21 defender, was the first member of the Tynecastle team to be struck down by the virus as he was laid low in the days leading up to Saturday’s lunchtime match against Celtic. He recovered in time to play at Parkhead but the bug was only just beginning to wreak havoc in the Hearts dressing-room.

“A few of the Scotland Under-21 boys had to pull out with the virus last week and now it’s come into our squad,” head coach Robbie Neilson told the Evening News. “Souttar had it when he first came back from international duty and it was a 24 to 48-hour thing which had cleared up by the Celtic game. He was the only one that had it before the Celtic game, but all five of the boys who were away with the Under-21s have been ill and they’ve spread it round the rest of the squad.”

It became evident towards close of play on Sunday that Hearts, who were already hit by the suspension of Juwon Oshaniwa and injuries to Don Cowie, Callum Paterson and Jamie Walker, may have a problem as Neilson began to get messages from players indicating that they were struggling with sickness.

However, it was only yesterday morning that the real extent of the issue started to become apparent. Neilson addressed the media as normal in his 9.30am pre-match media conference at Riccarton, and didn’t give away at that point that there was a problem. However, afterwards, as we waited for a player to arrive for interview, some Under-20 players, who were assembling in the corridor before boarding the team bus for yesterday’s development league match away to Dundee, were being told they would instead be joining the first team. Even allowing for the fact they were due to report slightly later in the morning, there was a notable absence of first-team players around the place, with the Evening News informed that Neil Alexander, our player of choice for interview, wouldn’t be available as he was ill.

“It became apparent there might be a problem on Sunday night when a couple of boys phoned up saying they were sick and then in the morning a few more phoned in sick and others came in and we had to turn them back and send them home,” said Neilson.

Daniel Baur, Callumn Morrison, Lewis Moore and goalkeeper Kelby Mason were among the development squad rookies who were told they would be heading to Inverness with the first team. Meanwhile, Jon Daly, the Under-20s coach, was left to take one of the youngest Hearts development teams ever to Links Park, Montrose to face Dundee.

By the time 11am arrived and the extent of the situation had become clear, Hearts realised they had a serious issue on their hands. Jack Hamilton, the back-up keeper, had been sent home and the squad which would board the bus at 2pm was looking skeletal. The decision was made to request a postponement, although they knew they wouldn’t get an instant answer which meant they had to continue to prepare as if the match was going to go ahead.

Aware that they had only 14 players, including seven youths, enrolled for duty, Hearts also put in a request to have the Development League match called off due to the likelihood that they would have to call up more under-20s if the Inverness match wasn’t postponed.

Daly, whose squad had arrived in Montrose, got the call around 1pm to inform him the development match might be about to bite the dust. By 1.15pm, with the young players assessing the playing surface ahead of the planned 2pm kick-off, they were told it was off and duly headed back to Edinburgh, dreaming of an unlikely call-up for first-team duty. Dundee, by all accounts, were understanding of the situation despite the game being called off less than an hour before kick-off.

Meanwhile, Neilson’s threadbare squad were preparing to leave Riccarton, hoping that common sense would prevail and they wouldn’t have to complete their journey to the Highlands.

“We travelled up with a small squad in the hope that, if the game was on, a few more of them would have been able to make it on the day of the game,” explained Neilson. “But we had set off without our two goalkeepers, Neil and Jack, so Kelby Mason, who has played no games, was the only goalie we had, with nothing in reserve. We had only three fit defenders, three midfielders and no wingers. We were going up there with absolutely nothing. We had to ask to have it cancelled.

“We also had to cancel the 20s game because, if the SPFL hadn’t sanctioned our request to have the Inverness game cancelled, we’d have had to use another four or five of the boys in the Under-20s as well as the ones we had already taken on the bus. We had eight first-team players on the bus, but that included Dario Zanatta and Robbie Buchanan, who are still effectively Under-20 players, so really it was six first-team boys.

“We ended up with eight of our first-team players out with the virus and another five or six out injured, as well as three young players injured on top of that. All in all, we had about 17 injured or ill. We couldn’t put a squad together.”

The Hearts doctor provided written evidence to this effect to the SPFL and, according to their statement, “advised of the potential for further infection, both of other squad members and of players and staff of Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC.”

The club were eventually informed around 4pm, when the first team were at House of Bruar, Perthshire, that the game – which had previously been rescheduled following a weather-related call-off on January 30 – had been postponed again and that the bus could reroute back to the Capital.

“I’m not surprised at all that they sanctioned it because we simply didn’t have a squad,” said Neilson. “I’m disappointed not to play the game because that’s us had it cancelled twice after making the journey up, but we were going up there with nothing [squad-wise].”