Why there should be no room for sentiment in Robbie Neilson's Hearts rebuild
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When Sean Clare was sarcastically cheered off during the 1-0 defeat to St Johnstone back in December there would have been a few fans in attendance at Tynecastle that afternoon thinking ‘he’s finished at Hearts’.
Daniel Stendel had eventually arrived to replace Craig Levein and with the transfer window just around the corner, the club fumbling about in a relegation battle, a number of personnel changes were hoped for by supporters.
Clare was one of many players with a high reputation putting in lowly performances. Yet, it is difficult to remember a player at the club changing public opinion as quickly as the Englishman did. Just over two weeks later he was being applauded off, warmly, after being red carded against Aberdeen.
Come March and the shutdown of the league, the 23-year-old was one of few players to emerge from the Stendel period with his head held high. Fans had questioned his heart and desire. Again, he was one of few to demonstrate both qualities. Not to forget intelligence, directness and composure in big moments.
Therefore the disappointment amongst fans which greeted his move back to England to join Oxford United was understandable, especially if some hoped for the player to kick on again under Robbie Neilson.
It followed the news Bobby Burns had agreed to join Barrow, while Conor Washington also seems to be nearing the exit door.
The latter’s proposed departure also prompted a modicum of disappointment.
Expensive players, assemble
It is something Hearts fans will need to be prepared for. The 27-man squad is still too chunky for a 27-game season, not to forget expensive.
And this brings us back to the disappointment of players leaving. It has to be remembered, this may well be the most expensive squad to be assembled that has finished bottom of the Scottish Premiership.
Of course, the team still had eight games remaining and could have saved themselves from the drop on the field, even if it didn’t look like it when the full-time whistle blew in Paisley back in March, Hearts falling to a 1-0 defeat – it should be emphasised the argument that ‘the team would have gone down anyway’ is nonsense.
Yet, the squad were a critical factor in why the club found themselves in the position they did. There should be no beating about the bush, ever since November 2018, the team had failed.
It can certainly be argued that the squad should be broken up, or significant alterations made at the very least.
The number of players who should be spared the for sale sign or ‘free to a new home’ appeal can be counted on one hand. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that there was a real disconnect between fans and players.
The Jim Jefferies parallel
As things stand, this Hearts squad is more than good enough to ease to the Scottish Championship title at a canter. But there is a bigger picture at play. Neilson will rightly be looking to put his own stamp on the team with an eye to returning to the top-flight and hitting the ground running when they do so. Winger Elliott Frear is on trial already, while the club are interested in Stephen Kingsley.
For that to happen money needs to be freed up, as does space in the squad.
Fans can speculate as to who else may be moved on but there are parallels to when Jim Jefferies, now back as advisor to the board, became Hearts manager in 1995. He didn’t take over a relegated side, but he did take over a relegation-battling team.
A ruthlessness was required, moving on players highly thought of by fans, players who had done big things in the maroon jersey, to usher in a new era and new mentality and Tynecastle.
It ultimately led to success in the 1998 Scottish Cup final.
Neilson possesses a spine of a very good football team, it’s what happens on the training pitch and in the transfer market over the next 10 weeks or so which will indicate whether it can flourish going forward this season and beyond.
There should be no room for sentiment this summer. It’s not about punishing players but about what is required.