When Hearts announced the surprise signing of a headband-wearing centre-back from Austria’s second division, nobody expected this.
Peter Haring is already a major goal threat after just five appearances for the Edinburgh club – underlined by his double in a 4-1 win at Hamilton to open the Ladbrokes Premiership campaign.
Haring now has three goals in five games since arriving from SV Ried and has become an automatic choice in manager Craig Levein’s starting line-up. His net-bulging feats are partly down to a move from central defence into midfield, where he played for much of his youth. Hearts are simply happy he has taken to Scottish football so seamlessly.
Mickel Miller’s opening goal for Hamilton was equalised within three minutes on Saturday by Haring’s precise header from Steven Naismith’s cross. He wasn’t content scoring once on his league debut. After Naismith’s penalty put the visitors 2-1 up, the Austrian then produced a composed, but no less accurate, first-time finish to make it 3-1. Steven MacLean’s effort high into the top corner completed the scoring.
It was an impressive start to a season in which Hearts have high hopes. Raising expectation levels is dangerous after just one league fixture, but Haring is certainly getting supporters excited having shown a startling attacking threat in the air and on the ground.
“We signed him as a centre-back but he has played all the time as an attacking midfield player,” explained Levein. “You could see that from his second goal. He showed composure with bodies in front of him to pick out the corner.
“I love him. He is so honest and wholehearted in everything he does – every tackle, every header. He is a dream. He is low-maintenance and you don’t need to worry too much about him.”
Hamilton’s goal was prodded home after Miller appeared to pull the Hearts defender Aaron Hughes back. “It was a foul but he [Hughes] probably should have cleared it,” stated Levein. “After ten or 15 minutes I wasn’t feeling quite as relaxed as I was at the end. We didn’t start the game particularly well. Hamilton started better than us and scored. It’s not the way I’d have liked the game to go, but maybe in hindsight it was no bad thing.
“We had to dig in and turn that 1-0 scoreline around and it makes us feel quite good about doing that. We played well on occasions. I feel we can score goals. We will play stronger teams in the weeks ahead than we have in the last few games, no disrespect to them, So I’m not getting too carried away. There are signs we can improve and do better this season than last year.”
The greater goal threat is clear. Hearts have scored 14 times in their past three games as Levein’s attacking options near full fitness. Uche Ikpeazu is in form and caused Hamilton problems due to his physicality. MacLean took his goal well and linked play, and Naismith attacked frequently from a wide left role.
When last season’s top goalscorer, Kyle Lafferty, is used only as an impact substitute, it reinforces the choices Levein now has. The manager was frustrated seeing the hulking Ikpeazu punished for his physicality against young Hamilton defenders Alex Penny and Shaun Want.
“The problem is he’s stronger than everybody else. That’s a fact,” said Levein. “He is just stronger, but sometimes he gets penalised for being stronger. “I think it’s hard for referees. Sometimes he is holding people off, other times people have a hold of his jersey or he’s got somebody else’s jersey. It is quite difficult to work out what’s happening. His game is about linking play.
“He does okay in the air but he is better when the ball is on the ground. I was just as pleased with his performance on Saturday because he contributed to somebody else scoring [MacLean]. It’s vital for him to add assists as well as goals to his game. I just hope people realise he shouldn’t be penalised for being stronger than other players.”
MacLean turns 36 later this month but continues to defy the ageing process. “He’s a fantastic football player. I’ve always liked him, since he was a young kid at Rangers,” remarked Levein. “He is very clever and he is good at linking the play. He is a good foil for Uche and Kyle as well.
“I didn’t really expect him to play so many matches – that’s his second game on astroturf – but I’m finding it difficult to leave him out. He has been pestering me to play, all the time. He wants to stay in the team. If he wants to play, I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t. He is contributing and that’s really important.”
Martin Canning, the Hamilton manager, felt his team caused Hearts problems in the first half but lamented the lack of an experienced defensive head after the interval. “With young defenders, you switch off against a good and experienced team and you get punished,” he complained. “I don’t think Hearts did anything spectacular. It was individuals not defending the way they should have. We need to try to get a bit of experience in to help the kids. We know we need to add defensively.”