EVERY Hearts supporter yearns for the return of the old Andy Driver. None more so than the player himself. The blinding pace, ball trickery, powerful crossing and incisive finishing have been sorely missed for much of the last three years. Indications are they are gradually coming back. Driver looks increasingly like his old self once again.
He has just completed his first proper pre-season in three years, largely due to a multitude of injury problems which are now cured. The winger looks and feels fresh and motivated after a summer working under John McGlynn, his coach from the Hearts youth team who recently returned as manager. If anyone can bring the old Driver back to life, it should be McGlynn.
So far his magic appears to be working. Driver’s performances towards the end of last season hinted that he was slowly recapturing the form which made him such a sought-after property not too long ago. Pre-season performances have gone up a notch from there. Once he samples competitive football again, starting this weekend when Hearts open their SPL campaign against St Johnstone, Driver expects to be hitting the heights he touched before injury interrupted his progress.
He is still only 24, with time very much on his side and a prosperous career surely still ahead. But this season is a vital one after almost three years of irregular appearances. And he knows it. Driver can be a major player in McGlynn’s attack-minded 4-3-3 formation if he produces. He believes he is ready now more than ever before.
“Pre-season has gone well. It’s been that long since I had one,” he laughed. “I’ve worked with the gaffer before and he knows what I can do. There’s no hiding place for me. It’s not like it’s totally new for me, I’ve just gone back to how I played when I was younger. That got me into the first team in the first place, so it’s quite refreshing going back to that. Hopefully I can repay the faith John showed in me when I was young and the faith he’s showing in me now.
“I want to do the business when the league starts. I’m feeling fresh, I’m feeling good and I want my confidence to keep going. Hopefully over the next few weeks you’ll see me back to my best. There’s no pressure. It’s only a game of football, after all. The biggest pressure on me is put on by myself. If you worry about what other people think you’ll just retreat into your shell. I think I showed glimpses towards the end of last season and I really want to continue that this year. What you get out of this game depends on what you put in. I’ve been working hard and I’m hoping that’s going to pay off.”
Whereas many players dread the thought of pounding the grass on pre-season runs, Driver has embraced every second of it this year in evidence of his appetite to regain top form. “It’s been a huge positive for me because I’ve not missed a second of anything,” he continued. “I haven’t missed a training session and, although I’ve come off during games, it’s not been through injury or anything like that. Hopefully, I can take that into the season. I’ve worked a lot with the sports scientists and I’m feeling fresh and ready to go. It feels like pre-season has gone really quickly, but that’s a good sign because we’ve enjoyed it. We’ve had a few games and a few wins.
“There’s always a point to prove (after missing so much football) but I don’t look at it that way. I view it as it’s my career and I want to advance in my career. Hopefully, by doing as well as I can, it will impress people, but if you think about things like that too much then you’ll never perform. Why would you worry about pleasing everybody else? If you feel you’re doing alright yourself, that’s the most important thing. The manager is the one guy to impress because he’s the one picking the team every week.”
McGlynn doesn’t do favouritism but it would be fair to assume Driver already had a slight advantage over some Hearts colleagues having played under the new manager before.
The winger’s contract expires next June, but that seems like light years away for someone who has learned the hard way only to look at the short term. For the moment, he is impressing in a Hearts team using a system he likes and has been granted licence to thrill by McGlynn. He couldn’t be happier.
“The way the gaffer wants to play is to get the ball back inside the opposition half,” said Driver. “We have a lot of work to do in the wide areas but that’s expected. We are changing from right side to left and that’s good experience which should pay off as time goes on. I’ve been told since I was 15 years old that my job as a wide man is to get the ball in the box. Having someone like John Sutton in there gives us a real object to look for. He’s scored three goals in four games during pre-season which bodes well for the rest of the year. I think you’ll see the best of him in a Hearts jersey as the season goes on.”
Indeed, Sutton converted the winning goal against Rotherham United on Saturday with Driver eager to join in the net-ripping this year. “I’m getting into the right areas again, which was a major part of my game before. I did quite well at it so I want to get that back and start scoring a few goals.
“Rotherham were a tough team and I think they’ll do well this year. It was more like an SPL game because we were battling for a while. We had to show a lot of character to get anything from the game. It wasn’t a feast of football. We had to work for what we got and the manager said at the end that he was delighted to win because these are the types of games we will get in the SPL, especially away from home.”