Why it's a huge season for these 6 Hearts players
There are far too many ‘if X happened then Hearts would not have been prematurely relegated’ alternatives to the darkest timeline to count, but it’s fair to say that if Jamie Walker had performed to a level similar to his standard before his departure for Wigan then his boyhood club would not be currently preparing for a season in the Scottish Championship. There were occasional flashes, but overall he was just another underperforming star in a deeply mediocre team and looked little like his old self.
In all honesty, barring a couple of stand-out showings in the era days of the Ian Cathro era (shudder...) we haven’t seen the best of Walker since Robbie Neilson was last at the helm, and the hope is that his old coach returning will bring out some of the best in him. The early indications are that Neilson will certainly give him the chance to be that player again, with Walker firmly the first-choice at the No.10 position behind Liam Boyce in pre-season.
At 27-years-old, Walker should be entering his prime, not back in the exact same scenario he was six years ago, looking to cement his standing as one of the first names down on the teamsheet. However, he still should have another five or six good years left in him and he can do that at his first club if he rediscovers his mojo this season and gets some momentum back into his career.
This entry is quite simple: the Austrian just needs to stay fit and make up for lost time over the past 16 months. The chronic groin/pelvic pain he suffered may have robbed him of a chance to play at a high level in the English Championship, seeing as he’ll be 29 when his Tynecastle contract expires in June 2022, but he can still reclaim his place among the elite midfielders in the Scottish Premiership if he can remain pain free, show the same level of consistent excellence as his first season and help Hearts get back to the top flight at the first time of asking. Mobility is such an important part of his game. Fingers crossed none of that has been robbed from him by the injury.
The Australian was handed a three-year contract when he first joined the club but has never been able to firmly lock down a place as the club’s first-choice left-back. A massive knee injury sustained toward the end of the 2018/19 campaign played a significant part in this, but even before that setback then-manager Craig Levein didn’t seem satisfied with his signing and essentially brought back Demi Mitchell to take his place (it didn’t go well).
The emergence of Aaron Hickey then put paid to any chance of Garuccio returning and claiming the spot. Now that Hickey is gone, the opportunity is there for Garuccio to prove to his new manager he is definitely the man for the job and, with Aidy White in reserve, there’s no need to go out and bring in another left-back.
This is the last year of his deal and if he has eyes on another one, or even moving up the football ladder in Britain, he cannot sit on the bench for the majority of season. The good news for the full-back is that his strengths (set-piece delivery, attacking impetus) should be accentuated by Hearts being heavy favourites in every match this coming term, while his deficiencies (defensive positioning, consistency) won’t be as much of an issue as they were in the top flight.
The former captain has been given a reprieve after his Tynecastle career looked all but over in January. Former manager Daniel Stendel made it clear in no uncertain terms he didn’t see the centre-back as being part of his long-term plans and wanted him out of the club as soon as possible. More and more these days it seems better for a player to refuse a permanent deal elsewhere and hope they outlive the manager, which is exactly what’s happened here.
The signing of Mihai Popescu would suggest Berra is not going to return to the status he held at the club this time last year, but he’ll be given every chance to make himself third-choice ahead of youngster Chris Hamilton, which should give him enough opportunities across the course of the campaign. His performances at Dundee in a brief loan spell earlier this year would indicate he’s still got more than enough left in the tank to be a positive contributor for Neilson.
If he can have a good campaign then he could extend his playing career by another couple of years at a full-time level. If he struggles in the second tier, it’s hard to imagine too many desirable suitors knocking on his door next summer.
Anthony McDonald/Harry Cochrane
The 2017/18 season, barring a couple of memorable matches (‘The Invicibles’? Ha!), was fairly dismal from a Hearts perspective, but the shining light was the number of young players who got their opportunity in the first-team. Cochrane and McDonald were the two shining lights, with the former in particular earning rave reviews for his performances in the aforementioned 4-0 win over Celtic, not to mention a couple of star turns in the two Tynecastle victories over Hibs.
It’s fair to say the pair have not kicked on since then as they’ve had to watch other academy graduates like Andy Irving, Euan Henderson and Lewis Moore get more opportunities. They’re still teenagers, and will be for the majority of this term, so there is still time for them to develop and realise their potential even if they don’t make much of an impact, but let’s face it: their long-term prospects won’t look good if they can’t break into a second-tier team during a period of massive financial uncertainty.