Hearts’ signing of Steven MacLean was met by scepticism but he has won over doubters by continuing to play the way he always has, writes Joel Sked.
• READ MORE: John Souttar admits Hearts team-mate Steven MacLean ‘bullied’ him
It feels like a lifetime ago Craig Levein began his extensive recruitment drive and reshaping of the Hearts squad. Such has been the extent of the overhaul - seventeen players have arrived and with 22 departing, ten on temporary deals - it would be forgivable for fans to not remember who the first signing was.
Yet, back in April, fans were collectively blowing out their cheeks, underwhelmed at the confirmation that Steven MacLean would join the club following the expiry of his St Johnstone contract.
The signing of a 35-year-old striker, who was deemed unable to play on artificial surfaces, on a two-year contract suggested to some fans that the club’s ambitions didn’t match their own. At that point in the season Hearts sat sixth, 13 points behind rivals Hibs and a further three behind Aberdeen and Rangers.
Despite a recent 2-0 victory over Aberdeen, cause for optimism was in short supply with key players Joaquim Adao, Steven Naismith, Demetri Mitchell and David Milinkovic set to return to their parent clubs at the season end. They were concerned what the future held in terms of the make-up of the squad.
At that point in the campaign MacLean had netted six times in the league; the closest he had ever come to hitting the desired 20-goal mark was 14 years ago for Sheffield Wednesday when he reached 19. Initial reactions of signing a forward are always based on their goal return, and MacLean’s did not excite.
The announcement did seem to inspire MacLean, who netted four goals in three games after the split, including a hat-trick on his 202nd and final appearance for the Saints. However, what had to be understood, was that MacLean wasn’t being signed for his goals tally. He offered more. Much more.
Levein called him a “safe bet”. While it is a compliment it perhaps did him a disservice. Even at 35 years of age he was an important player for St Johnstone - a focal point, a leader and a talisman. In seasons two and three of six at McDiarmid Park he missed a chunk of the campaign due to operations on his knee. But in the other four seasons he played more than 30 games in each.
Opposition fans will have no doubt vented expletive-ridden rants at the forward such as is the “devilment”, as Levein put it, he possesses on the pitch where he pokes his nose into scrapes and arguments. After all, this is a man who has owned up to gesturing angrily to his dad when celebrating goals.
Saints boss Tommy Wright trusted him on the pitch. MacLean both protected his team-mates and badgered them, demanding high standards. Such standards had slipped at Tynecastle and the club required more winners, and moaners.
Levein has been keen to inject the team with experienced professionals who are smart, savvy and can act as role models and provide guidance. MacLean falls into such a category.
Just as importantly, his footballing ability could never be questioned. MacLean looks like your stereotypical No.9 but at St Johnstone he morphed into a mix between a No.9 and No.10, such was his intelligence dropping off the front line and linking play. It has taken Hearts fan little time at all to take to MacLean and realise that the club have been very shrewd in recruiting him.
A debut goal against Cove Rangers helped his cause but there was a less subtle moment in his second appearance which was a better barometer for the impact he would have. Against Cowdenbeath in the Betfred Cup MacLean stepped off the forward line to receive a pass. The ball was fizzed into him at pace and with barely a look over his shoulder he expertly took the pace off the ball, while simultaneously guiding it out to Callumn Morrison on the right- wing.
On the face of it the moment wasn’t spectacular but it was something which the team had been missing.
His partner that night was Kyle Lafferty. MacLean is the antithesis of the Northern Irishman. The ex-Hearts forward is individualistic, capable of the spectacular, a player who thrives in the limelight. MacLean works better within a collective, contributing to the build-up, unselfish play consistently, week-in-week-out.
With markedly different qualities it was a partnership that, on paper, would have complimented one another. But the little they played together paled in comparison to that of MacLean and Uche Ikpeazu. Again, two players who play the game in a very different manner but who clicked almost immediately.
Ikpeazu can stretch defences, run in behind, pin defenders which opens space for MacLean to forage and operate. But within that they have developed an understanding with St Mirren the victims of such interplay on Saturday when the pair, along with Steven Naismith, seemed to toy with the hapless Buddies as they popped the ball around with ease.
Any concerns about MacLean’s age, durability or inability to play on artificial surfaces have been consigned to the past. His influence is being recognised in the stands as well as in the dressing room.
Naismith picked him out as the club’s key signing - quite a statement considering the success of the recruitment drive - while John Souttar has spoken about his relief that he is on the same side as the veteran and his elbows having pinpointed him as one of the toughest opponents.
Levein talked about the need for greater experience and options from the bench. It seemed that MacLean would be rotated but he has reached the point where he can’t be dropped. Poll fans on the club’s best XI and he will be standing there, alongside Ikpeazu, as part of arguably the most formidable frontline since the days of George Burley.
Five months have past since his arrival and the initial scepticism. In that time he has changed opinions, won fans over and become a key cog in the renaissance at Tynecastle under Levein. All by continuing to simply do what he did at St Johnstone.
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