Stephen Kingsley exclusive Hearts interview: 'Something needs to change soon. We have to be men and stand up.'
Perhaps more by default than anything else, Stephen Kingsley finds himself an elder statesman inside the Hearts dressing room right now. He feels the responsibility during a difficult run of results.
Senior colleagues like Craig Halkett, Michael Smith and Liam Boyce are missing as relentless injuries decimate the Riccarton squad. Three wins in 14 games is not a sequence anyone finds acceptable despite some mitigating circumstances including a hectic schedule and those fitness issues.
Premiership leaders Celtic are due at Tynecastle Park on Saturday and Kingsley is determined to change the narrative of recent weeks. At 28, he is the experienced defensive figurehead until Halkett and Smith return. Alex Cochrane to his left is 22, with 19-year-old Lewis Neilson and 23-year-old Toby Sibbick to his right.
Kingsley is not a dominant centre-back to trade but is playing there to offer presence, stature and a degree of calmness among the madness. He knows the onus is on him and captain Craig Gordon to marshall and inspire less-experienced team-mates. It might be the only way Hearts can navigate a path through their current troubles, the latest setback being Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Aberdeen.
“I’ve never really seen anything like it, to be honest,” said Kingsley in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I feel like every game we are getting another injury. It’s not just a slight knock, it’s something needing looked at and possibly a few weeks out.
“I’ve never seen this magnitude of bad injuries, like minimum two-week injuries. The gaffer has said 11 first-team players are missing. It’s a period we are going through and we need to see out. We can only do that by sticking together and trying to grind out some results.
“I thought in spells we played well at Pittodrie, we had possession and created chances. It’s really been the story of our last few games that we are losing poor goals. That was another two poor ones on Sunday and they cost us. Something needs to change soon. With the injury situation, we really need to stand up and be counted.”
Which requires leadership from not just senior figures, but also younger players who need to grow up quicker than normal. “Yes, 100 per cent. It’s on us to set an example for the younger boys and try to pull us through,” said Kingsley. “The younger boys have to step up to the plate now and really take advantage of the game time they will get. That’s the position we are in and it’s going to be difficult. For the lads who are still fit, we need to rally and try to make a difference.
“We have to be men and stand up. We need to take chances and be solid at the back, cut out these mistakes leading to goals. If we come away with a 0-0 on Sunday, another two injuries, a clean sheet, plus missed chances, then you are thinking it could have been our day. Instead we got a 2-0 defeat.”
Consistency of performance is difficult to achieve when a team is being altered through necessity each week. Hearts’ constant injury problems show no signs of easing after Andy Halliday and Peter Haring were both forced off at Pittodrie. Those fit and healthy must show the required motivation to fight adversity.
“The whole team is chopping and changing so it’s difficult for everybody,” acknowledged Kingsley. “It’s difficult for the coaching staff. They need to pick teams and keep everyone motivated to come in and change the atmosphere because it is sore. Everyone is hurting just now.
“The older boys, myself included, really have to get everyone together, keep the atmosphere positive and make sure we turn a corner. It’s going to be difficult with the injuries but we can’t use that as an excuse. That’s just the way football is sometimes. No-one else is going to change it. It’s up to us.”
Kingsley adapted to a new position on the left side of Hearts’ back three last season and acquitted himself well. Traditonally an attack-minded left full-back, his ability to underlap Cochrane at wing-back made him a useful attacking weapon as well as a competent defender.
Because of this year's aforementioned injuries, he has been asked to play left of the three again, as well as centre-back in a three and even right centre-back in a four-man defence. He is honest enough to admit it has not been strightforward.
“It’s been frustrating. Playing left centre-back last season, I adjusted to it and got to enjoy it towards the end of the campaign. I did well in pre-season but then the season starts and injuries kick in. We had so many games and you are asked to play these different positions – right centre-half, or in the middle of a three, or whatever.
“It can be frustrating because you don’t have a consistent back line playing in a position you are comfortable in. It’s my job now to be a leader, be an older and wiser head in this team. My role has changed a wee bit in terms of being that centre-half who has to adapt and push the boys on. I have to help the younger boys. Craig is the same, Snods [Robert Snodgrass] has come in.
“It’s frustrating with the results but you need to deal with tough times as a footballer. I went to left centre-back on Sunday after Andy Halliday’s injury and I felt me and Alex straight away got back into that rhythm of going forward and being dangerous.
“Personally, I’d say I’ll always be a left back. I have the capacity to be switched on enough to play centre-half but I always like stepping in and going forward. I just need to change the way I’m thinking to help the team while we are going through this patch.”