Our first look at Hearts version 2020/21 - how they fared in closed-doors friendly against East Fife
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Not since March 7, when Hearts drew 1-1 against Motherwell, have the Jambos played at Tynecastle. A lot has changed since then: divisions, managers, some players, number of spectators. So it was a relief to have football back in Gorgie as Hearts hosted East Fife in a closed-doors pre-season friendly.
Hearts return to competitive action on October 6 in the Betfred Cup against Inverness Caledonian and on the evidence of this resounding 5-0 win, they are on course to be in the best shape possible in a couple of weeks time.
This match gave us the first peek at new head coach Robbie Neilson’s strategy for the upcoming campaign as Hearts try to win the Championship.
New signings Craig Gordon, Elliott Frear and Jordan Roberts started, while Josh Ginnelly came on from the bench. Olly Lee is back, handed a central-midfield berth after a loan spell at Gillingham. They all did well, as they should against part-time opposition behind them in preparations.
But the most striking thing here was the way Hearts played. Under Craig Levein, they were conservative, under Daniel Stendel they were cavalier, nay reckless. Neilson is trying to find the perfect blend. They squeezed the life out of East Fife, but it was done in a controlled manner. For the first 55 minutes, Hearts’ level was high until substitutions and inevitable fatigue kicked in.
Hearts won the Championship back in 2014/15 under Neilson playing a 4-2-3-1 system and that’s what he’ll go with again. Andy Irving and Lee are duplicating the Morgaro Gomis-Prince Buaben axis, taking the ball from deep and starting off attacks swiftly and slickly. Ahead of them, Frear and Roberts offered plenty of width and pace, with Jamie Walker operating in the No.10 role, although all three interchanged to good effect. Liam Boyce spearheaded the attack.
Hearts will see an awful lot of the ball this season. Their full-backs, Michael Smith and Ben Garuccio, bombed forward when possible. East Fife, with former Jambo Danny Swanson in their ranks, were suffocated. This will be Hearts’ tactic this season. Play with tempo, aggression, be incisive and clinical.
They were 3-0 up within half-an-hour thanks to a tap-in from Craig Halkett, a cute finish from Frear and belting strike from Walker. Boyce headed home two minutes after the restart and floodgates looked liked they had been opened. Credit to East Fife – who changed the majority of their team at half-time – though as they rallied and became more competitive. Understandably given where we are in the season, Hearts’ energy started to wane and the game fizzled out somewhat, although the hosts did bag a fifth when Chris Hamilton poked the ball home from a Halkett knock-down.
Winger Ginnelly, on loan from Preston North End and Craig Wighton, who looked totally out of the picture under previous bosses, were given some minutes later in the second half, although neither player had much of an opportunity to impress. We did not, however, get a glimpse of the trialist on the subs bench, understood to be a young midfielder from Ukraine.
Steven Naismith, still lacking full fitness, will come in when the season resumes. Naismith looks a shoo-in for the No.10 role, but Walker is at his most natural there and could give Neilson a selection headache. Young centre-half Hamilton played alongside Halkett and settled into the game after a shoogly start, but one imagines Mihai Popescu – currently quarantining after flying in from Romania on Thursday – will be Halkett’s partner next month with Christophe Berra and John Souttar injured. Peter Haring, sidelined for over a year, is very close to making it back on to the pitch too and while naturally a defensive midfielder, he can slot into central defence if required.
One of the most reassuring sights of the night though was seeing Gordon back in a Hearts shirt. It just looks natural, a perfect fit. He made some smart saves in the second half. When you consider the much-maligned (and correctly so) Joel Pereira was the No.1 for most of last term, Hearts have traded in a banger for a Bentley.
First impressions of this Hearts batch are decent. After all, the last time Hearts played East Fife, they were unceremoniously overcome in a Betfred Cup group tie, with Levein heckled by his own support, following defeat by the men from Methil on penalties in July 2019. It feels like we are a galaxy away from those days.
The next few friendlies – Falkirk, Edinburgh City and Partick Thistle next week – will allow Neilson to fine-tune even further before the important stuff begins.
Hearts: Gordon, M Smith, Halkett, Hamilton, Garuccio, Irving, Lee, Roberts (Ginnelly 62), Walker (Wighton 72), Frear, Boyce (C Smith 79): Subs not used: Stewart, Denholm, Trialist.
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