Who will be the next Hearts captain? The 6 candidates to replace Steven Naismith
There have already been key moves at Tynecastle Park this summer which go beyond simply replenishing and refreshing the squad.
With Christophe Berra’s exit to Raith Rovers on a free contract followed by the recent announcement that Steven Naismith has retired, it has removed two key personalities from the team’s dressing room.
The reaction on social media from current and former Hearts players to Naismith’s news earlier this week said a lot about the influence he had as both a leader and colleague.
As for Berra, he was commonly known as ‘Skip’ to many around Tynecastle.
Robbie Neilson, as well as adding to his squad ahead of the club’s return to the cinch Premiership, has a key decision to make as to who wears the armband.
The good news for the Hearts boss is that he has plenty of options within the squad to take on the captain’s role.
The obvious candidate
Craig Gordon is the most obvious candidate.
The 38-year-old is the most experienced player in the squad and the man who deputised for Naismith for the majority of last season.
Not only does Gordon remain a wonderful goalkeeper but a great ambassador for the club. He is measured and articulate and a genuine Hearts fan.
He is respected by both players and fans as someone who is trusted, reliable and one who everyone, quite literally, looks up to.
It is evident Gordon is going to play a key role in the development of Harry Stone into the next Hearts goalkeeper but for the Scotland international, he is nowhere near ready to hang up his gloves just yet.
Having only played one game between season 2011/12 and 2013/14, he will want to eke out all the game time possible before retiring. And there is no doubt he has that bit between his teeth.
That could be seen in an interview after Scotland’s match v the Netherlands before Euro 2020 and during the past campaign where he talked about his frustration at a lack of clean sheets.
“It still hurts losing goals," he said. “I don't think that ever goes away, no matter how old you are or how many games you've played. It's not a nice feeling. You want to give the team a solid base to work from, get forward and score goals.”
The returning star and the fan favourite
Gordon will be aided in his quest to keep clean sheets next season by John Souttar.
The 24-year-old showed his class towards the end of the season after returning from another serious injury.
Souttar, like Gordon, gets Hearts. He has been around the club long enough to know the demands of the fans, the standards which are required.
He would present the most sensible long-term captain. Albeit it would require a contract extension with his current deal expiring in 2022.
There is, of course, an argument for Souttar not to be handed the armband. This coming campaign should be about Souttar concentrating on playing regularly, staying fit and getting him back to the level where he was handed international recognition. Adding captain responsibilities on top of that may not be ideal especially when there are other candidates.
Such as Michael Smith.
The Northern Irishman could be seen as quiet and unassuming on the outside. But he is a vocal presence on the field.
On top of that, he is arguably the most popular player amongst supporters thanks to a raft of consistent, no nonsense displays at right-back, left-back, centre-back, wing-back and in the centre of midfield.
Smith has been around Tynecastle long enough to know the club well enough to be in such a position and hold the respect of those he is playing for, under and with.
Halkett, Haring and Boyce
Fellow defender Craig Halkett led the team out on a few occasions last season, as he did the previous campaign.
It was a role he thrived in at Livingston and he spoke about it when former boss Daniel Stendel gave him the armband.
He said: “You’re a leader for the 11 men on the park, for the guys in the stand and the people around the club. I was never the loudest player on the park or in the changing room at Livingston. I got on with everyone.
“But I became a good captain because of my performances and consistency in games and training."
It can be argued Halkett hasn’t consistently hit the level he reached at Livingston prior to his move to Tynecastle. However, he is well liked by Neilson, playing every minute of the Championship-winning campaign.
Being appointed captain could bring more out of him.
There are two other options further up the field.
One is Peter Haring. The Austrian was getting back to somewhere near his influential best before the season ended after a difficult time with injury.
The midfielder is not a shouter or bawler. He talks team-mates through games, offering encouragement. He also demonstrates his leadership with action. Reading the game excellently, getting the ball back, driving the team forward.
Another individual who is hugely popular amongst the support.
An outside shot for captaincy duty could be Liam Boyce. The striker showcased his importance and quality throughout last season.
The Northern Irishman would very much fall into the category of captain who leads through his performances rather than in a verbal manner.
There is no doubt he will play when fit.
The final option could be someone who isn’t at the club yet.
Neilson has spoken of the need to add players to the squad this summer, including in the centre of defence.
It may be that the next Hearts captain is someone who the fans don’t know about yet.