What it will take for Craig Wighton to become a Hearts No.9 - and why Robbie Neilson believes he will 'grow into it'
The forward showed flashes against Partick Thistle that he is ready to step up and become an important player for Hearts this season
Craig Wighton has the second most important person in his corner as he looks to kick start his Hearts career.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s friendly win over Partick Thistle, Tynecastle Park boss Robbie Neilson confirmed that the attacker would be one of "two main strikers”, alongside Liam Boyce, this season.
After all, Wighton has a manager who is a long-time admirer.
“I was pleased with him, really pleased," Neilson said of the forward's performance. “With the possibility of Boyce not being with us with international games coming up for the Betfred so it's important that Craig Wighton's ready.
"I really like him as a player. I tried to sign him when he was at Dundee when I was here as manager but it didn't quite work out. Eventually he came.
"I think he has got great quality, great pace, good finisher.”
The news of Wighton's standing within the squad and the comments from Neilson may surprise or even exasperate some amongst the Hearts support. After all, this is a forward who has yet to score for the club despite arriving over two years ago and one who possesses a ratio of a goal roughly every 10 matches in his career, boosted by three in five while on loan at Arbroath last season.
Since joining the club in the summer of 2018 from Dundee for a reported six-figure fee, the 23-year-old has simply not delivered on the field but he now finds himself with the ideal opportunity to reignite a Tynecastle career which hasn’t so much as stalled as been left teetering on a cliff.
With the backing of Neilson, it is now down to the most important person in his corner: Craig Wighton himself.
There is always a reluctance to read too much into a pre-season encounter, especially against lower division opposition. But for Wighton there were encouraging signs as he grew into the match, playing the full 90 minutes and finishing wide on the right.
Not only did he pose a goal threat in behind but he displayed flashes of what he can offer the team this season. There were nice interchanges, sharp movement around the box and perhaps best of all a determination to close down and get his hands dirty.
There was one particular moment in the second half where he got in possession and attempted a smart turn, only to be dispossessed. However, within seconds he had switched from the mindset of having lost the ball to a willingness to win it back from Ross Docherty.
There are any number of reasons why supporters won't take to a player, especially at Tynecastle. But if you can demonstrate a steely attitude and the desire to get stuck in, it can provide credit in the bank and create a solid platform in which to build on and earn a reputation that is more than simply a ‘hard worker’.
One of the arguments for the difficult beginning to his Hearts career revolves around position. Ask fans what they think Wighton’s best position is and there would likely be a few different answers and perhaps some less than flattering ones too.
He has never had a defined role at the club. He has played wide, through the middle, as part of a strike force but without any sort of regularity or consistency.
Going forward, he is a central striker who can fill in as a wide player if required.
What was lacking against Partick Thistle was that ruthlessness in front of goal. His link play at times was excellent, dropping deep a couple of times to take a couple of difficult long balls, while he also created chances for Jamie Walker and Steven Naismith with cute passes.
Yet, on two occasions in the first half he was played through with a good sight of goal, but on both occasions he opted for a pass rather than going it alone.
He displayed a more selfish side to his game after the break, latching on to a Jordan Roberts flick on to nip the ball away from Richard Foster before nutmegging and holding off the ex-Aberdeen and Rangers defender. With passing options on, he cut inside only for his shot to be repelled by Jamie Sneddon in the Thistle goal.
it was a moment which his performance had slowly been building to. Early touches, combining, working hard, building confidence and then having that single-mindedness to take on the effort.
For Wighton to be a success at Hearts he needs to believe he can be a success at Hearts. It is something which may take time and he may be one of the beneficiaries of no fans in the ground.
There are those amongst the support who will have already made up their mind about Wighton and, as he has probably realised, Tynecastle can be an unforgiving venue when things aren’t going right.
But with a somewhat surreal and serene environment, it allows him time to develop that confidence so that when fans are back in the ground they can witness a new player in the flesh, one they have not had the chance to see despite his arrival two years ago.
"He just needs to have that belief he can go and do it because there is pressure being a Hearts No.9,” Neilson said. “But I think he will grow into it, so I'm pleased with him.”
It is now down to one man, and one man only.