On Sunday, Hearts will announce their player of the year awards after a difficult season, but the campaign has been dotted with memorable moments and big performances.
There are two clear front-runners for the player of the year prize, and not surprisingly the duo have been the most consistent and form part of the second-best defence in the Scottish Premiership.
It has been a breakthrough season for many promising talents, but it has been the experienced heads who have largely produced the finest performances.
“He’s experienced and he’s calm. He makes saves at important moments in matches.” Hearts manager Craig Levein all but summed up the 30-year-old in February.
Since Craig Gordon departed the club for Sunderland in 2007, Hearts have had varied success with No.1s, from the unorthodox but effective goalkeeping of Marian Kello to the unorthodox and less effective goalkeeping of Eduardas Kurskis.
In less than a season, McLaughlin has put across enough dependable performances to suggest he has the ability to join the likes of Gordon, Antti Niemi and Gilles Rousset as one of the best goalkeepers to play for the club in the last 30 years.
Barring a mistake against Partick Thistle which brought back memories of Rousset’s against Rangers in the 1996 Scottish Cup final, McLaughlin has been faultless. Despite Hearts’ defensive record, he has been worked hard – no goalkeeper has made more saves in the league. Alongside Christophe Berra and John Souttar, the trio have built an impressive relationship.
It is hard to find a weakness in McLaughlin’s game. His handling his faultless, he pushes shots away from dangerous areas, he is comfortable with the ball at his feet, he is commanding and most importantly he keeps the ball out of the net.
In an interview with BBC Alba, aired at half-time during Hearts’ recent 3-0 victory over Partick Thistle, Souttar talked about the influence of defensive colleague Aaron Hughes and their relationship. The 21-year-old joked that Hughes would have felt like he was in an interview with all the questions Souttar was asking him.
What it shows is a football player willing to learn, to better himself, and he has done just that.
He came into the season having just recovered from a ruptured Achilles tendon, an injury sustained against Celtic in January last year. In the disastrous Betfred Cup campaign, where Hearts were the only Scottish Premiership to exit in the group stages, Souttar was one of the few positives. He was back playing and former boss Ian Cathro had clearly planned to hand him an important role in building play from the back.
Since Craig Levein took over the managerial reigns in August, Souttar’s role has switched. Defend first, play second. Alongside Christophe Berra, he has formed a formidable partnership. Listening to his more experienced colleague he has improved the “defend-at-all-costs” side of his game.
Souttar spoke in the BBC Alba interview about the struggles he faced as a teenager going up against physically imposing forwards, but also about his own physical development and how he is comfortable engaging in defensive duels. And, just as importantly, the ability with the ball which made him stand out as a 16-year-old remains.
Where would Hearts be without Berra? A pertinent question at points during the season. Between October 24 and December 2, when Hearts failed to win in six league games, the Scotland international seemed to be holding the team together, pulling them through a trying period.
Then came a run of eight games in all competitions without conceding a goal, a record for the club. From being the glue of the team he was now a towering presence. Every time the ball was crossed into the box, Berra was there. Every time the ball went into the, air Berra was there. Every time a striker got a sniff, Berra was there.
Exaggeration it may be, but that’s what Hearts fans felt. With Berra the team were never going to concede again. He was the no-nonsense centre-back the club required after Brazilian Igor Rossi left in January 2017. Scottish football is tough, it’s physical and teams need a player who can header, clear, tackle, put their body on the line. Berra does it all.
The 33-year-old has been suffering throughout the season with an ankle problem, but he has not missed a single minute of action. His traditional approach to defending, to getting on with it is respected and appreciated by the Hearts support.
The year 1992, that’s the last time a Hearts striker hit 20 competitive goals in a season. Of course, it was club legend John Robertson who achieved the feat 26 years ago when he struck 22. No one has done it since. Not Robertson, not Stephane Adam, not Mark de Vries, not even Rudi Skacel.
Lafferty has six games to net three goals and do just that. Throughout the season there may have been questions about his all-round play and whether he should have offered a bit more, but a Hearts striker being on the cusp of hitting the 20-goal mark should not be downplayed.
Not only has the Northern Irishman provided expert finishing from the angle of the box and been a threat in front of goal, he has produced big moments for the fans to enjoy. His goal in the 4-0 trouncing of Celtic will be up there as the moment of the season, while he has scored none better than his free-kick against Rangers at BT Murrayfield.
Lafferty and former striker Esmael Goncalves did not strike up a partnership, but there has been signs of Lafferty doing so with on-loan Norwich forward Steven Naismith, who arrived in January.
The 30-year-old also brings personality to the team, something which has pushed him to become a fans’ favourite.