Why Stephen Kingsley's traits as a player and character personify Hearts' new look squad

Take a look around the Hearts squad and it is easy to see why the team have begun the cinch Premiership so confidently.

Stephen Kingsley has been playing as a left centre-back. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)
Stephen Kingsley has been playing as a left centre-back. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

Five games in and Robbie Neilson’s men are unbeaten, a run which is even more impressive considering they have faced three of last season's top four.

A trust in the team has returned to the Hearts support, and rightly so. There is a reliability, solidity and calmness which runs through the spine of the squad.

Craig Gordon, John Souttar, Stephen Kingsley, Peter Haring, Beni Baningime, Michael Smith, Alex Cochrane and Liam Boyce to name but a few.

Kingsley has been part of a strong defence. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

Unassuming, level-headed and plenty of quality.

Take Kingsley. It said a lot that having missed the previous three outings Neilson had no qualms selecting him for an Edinburgh derby return.

It came after suffering a double illness hit. First the norovirus ruled him out of the win over St Mirren and then a matter of days later Covid saw him unavailable for the games with Aberdeen and Dundee United.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was only his second ever Scottish top-flight game having broken into the Falkirk side after their relegation from the top flight.

Kingsley was back in action against Hibs. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

The 100mph encounter didn't faze him in the slightest.

Coming back for the derby

"It’s the first experience I’ve had in the Premiership," Kingsley told the Evening News.

"I’m enjoying being with the boys, doing well with the team and hopefully we can keep this good form going.

John Souttar is considering a contract offer from Hearts with his current deal due to expire at the end of the season. Picture: SNS

“To miss three games was pretty annoying but I feel much better now and my family are all fine. We had the international break which came at a good time to allow me to get going again.

“The first few days I was tired and sore and after that started feeling better. Luckily the weather was quite nice so thankfully I could get in the back garden on the spin bike and keep myself ticking over slightly.

“We knew what [the derby] was going to be like. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know what it was going to be like coming into it.

"I had the semi-final last year which I played in and knew it was going to be a battle first and foremost. It’s about dealing with that and the pressure which comes along with it and letting the football take care of itself."

Change to a three

Whether it is watching Kingsley in action or speaking to him, you get the sense pressure doesn't affect him in the slightest and any challenge is met with an open mind and the utmost of ease.

One of those challenges was a switch to playing as part of a back three.

Unlike Craig Halkett and Souttar, he didn't get the chance to try it out at the end of the Championship campaign with injury ending his season prematurely.

"I never got to experience it but I saw it and the way we played and how solid we looked," he said.

"Coming back into pre-season it was something we continued to work on and something we felt comfortable doing and strong doing.

"It was always going to be the case that the formation was one we’d probably play with at the beginning of the season. We had a lot of games pre-season and the League Cup to get used to it and understand what the gaffer wanted us to do.”

The transition

Kingsley's experience of centre-back is varied. He played left of a back three in the Scottish Cup final against Celtic last year and also in the same role once for Swansea City against a Chelsea side featuring Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian.

There was also a season for Falkirk at centre-back in a back four.

The 27-year-old describes the transition from left-back in a manner which belies the ease at which he has taken to the role, especially his dovetailing with Alex Cochrane which has provided Hearts with a formidable left-hand side.

"I’m enjoying it more now as I am getting used to the position more," he said. I know my role within the team and having the licence to drift forward as well and try and help out going forward.

"It’s not a rigid three. Me and John [Souttar] will try and step in and build the game from the back. It took a bit of getting used to at first even though it is so close to left-back, it is still a different role within the team.

“You know what to do, it’s just doing it naturally and doing it without thinking. As you get used to it you do things in that position which becomes second nature. Things become sharper and more natural."

He added: “We’re both comfortable playing either position which helps.

"There are times in the game where Alex is defending and I can push up and move into the left wing-back. If he’s forward, as long as we’re set up behind the ball, I can push in and support him and get some deliveries into the box.”

The differences

So, what are the differences between centre-back and left-back?

“Its not massive but just little positionings,” Kingsley explained.

“Positioning is a big part of being a centre half, it’s a lot more trying to read the game whereas left-back is more trying to defend then get forward and join in attacks.

"If you can build the game from the back in possession you get a lot of touches of the ball. You get more touches at centre half than left-back.

“When you are called upon you have to show that presence as a centre half. But it’s more mental.

"Out of possession you do have to show that physical side but a lot of it is reading the game, covering, positional, defending your box.

"It’s in the brain more than anything else.”

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