With seven minutes remaining of Saturday’s draw at Aberdeen, the sizeable Hearts support erupted into a frenzied chant of “USA, USA, USA.”
This raucousness in Pittodrie’s away end was caused by a perfectly-timed, goal-saving tackle from American midfielder Perry Kitchen on Shay Logan just as the Dons right-back was about to pull the trigger in the box and potentially win the match for the hosts. Had he got it wrong, Aberdeen would have had a penalty.
In this moment of precision, the 24-year-old holding midfielder underlined his value to his team and vindicated Robbie Neilson’s decision to reintroduce him to the action, following a month out with a hamstring injury, midway through such a high-intensity fixture at one of the most formidable venues in the country.
Even before his crucial interception on Logan, Kitchen, who replaced Prince Buaben at the interval, had brought an air of assurance to a Hearts team who were battling manfully towards their first point of the season. Following three consecutive defeats in his absence, the USA internationalist was thrilled to be back in the thick of it.
“It felt good to get back on the field and help us get a decent result,” he told the Evening News. “It was tough to come back into a game like that after a month out. I was able to watch the first half to get an idea of how the game was going. When I went on, it seemed like it was 100 miles per hour, but I made some good blocks. I felt like I held up well. It was good to get 45 minutes under my belt. I enjoyed it.”
Kitchen caught the eye during his ten appearances after signing towards the end of last season, and Hearts fans were excited to see him start the current campaign at the heart of their midfield. However, that plan was put on hold when he suffered a hamstring tweak early in the Europa League draw away to Birkirkara last month. His steadying presence was missed as his team subsequently shipped seven goals in consecutive defeats to the Maltese side, Celtic and St Johnstone.
“I just felt a little pop in my hamstring and that was me out for a month,” he said. “It wasn’t ideal to pick up an injury when I did, because I missed some of the European games, the Celtic game and the cup game at St Johnstone. It’s not easy to sit out games like that but the main thing is to get your body right and get back into it.”
Kitchen feels in good shape and ready to start Saturday’s game against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Tynecastle. “I think I’m pretty close to full fitness,” he said. “I’ve been working hard in training over the last two weeks and the injury’s all gone.”
After being restricted to just one point from their opening two league games, against Celtic and Aberdeen, Kitchen expects his team to start making hay now that formidable fixtures against last season’s top two give way to a run of games against three of last term’s bottom six.
“We couldn’t have asked for a tougher start to the season,” he said. “We’ve had some good games and not come out with anything so it felt good to finally come away with something at Aberdeen. That was a huge result for us in terms of stopping the run of defeats. We now have a run of games where people will expect us to win, but we’re not underestimating anyone – we have to have the same mentality in those games as we had against Celtic and Aberdeen.”
Kitchen is enthused by the potential of the current Hearts squad. He only has to look at his own position, where he is vying with Don Cowie, the stand-in captain, Arnaud Djoum, last season’s player of the year, and Prince Buaben, who has been a regular for the last two seasons, to get an indication that the squad is well stocked.
“Something good is definitely going on here,” he said. “The squad we have now is definitely stronger than the one that finished last season. There are four or five central midfielders but it’s like that in every area of the squad. We’ve got real depth. We’ve got four or five very talented attackers who can make things happen for us. We’re going to be a team who will hopefully find the net a lot this season.
“There are a lot of options but I’m sure the coaches are enjoying the problem of having to figure out the best XI for each game. A good, deep squad ensures there’s good training session. That really drives the group. You don’t want to get injured because there are so many players waiting to take your place. It means that when you do come back and get your chance, you’ve got to take it. We’re only just touching the surface of what we can do as a team.”
The noises coming out of the Hearts squad over the past few days suggest they believe they are a team ready to ignite in the coming weeks. This impression has certainly been formed of Tony Watt, the on-loan Charlton Athletic forward who has shown real promise in his first three outings for his new club. Kitchen is excited by what he has sign so far from the 22-year-old livewire.
“Tony’s been very dangerous in his first few games,” he said. “Every time he gets the ball he looks like he could make something happen. He’s a top player and it’s great to have him on the field. He’s maybe a bit frustrated with the goals not coming but with the quality he has, things will definitely start going in his favour. I think he’ll be a formidable player once he gets up to speed and gets his first goal.”