Zander Clark's Hearts fear proved unfounded with only one goal conceded from open play
Start as you mean to go on. Zander Clark has conceded just one goal from open play in five Hearts appearances so far. If deputising for Craig Gordon is supposedly daunting, the stand-in is very much making light of it.
St Johnstone’s Jamie Murphy is the only player to have stuck one in Clark’s net without the need of a set-play or penalty. Stevie May’s spot-kick in the same game and Ryan Strain’s deflected free-kick for St Mirren are the others who squeezed a ball past Hearts’ replacement goalkeeper. He didn’t concede after taking over from Gordon at Tannadice following the captain’s double leg break, and subsequent clean sheets against Hibs and St Mirren indicate Clark has settled in nicely.
Hearts are enjoying a seven-game unbeaten run entering Wednesday’s Premiership match with Aberdeen at Tynecastle Park. Having been without injured mainstays like Gordon and defenders Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley, credit must go to the deputies. Clark was asked to form fresh understandings with defenders Toby Sibbick, Kye Rowles, Michael Smith, Alex Cochrane and, as of Friday, the Bournemouth loanee James Hill. He has embraced the challenge.
A virtuoso double save late on Friday night preserved Hearts’ advantage over St Mirren and ultimately helped secure a narrow 1-0 win. Clark showed excellent reactions to parry shots from Greg Kiltie and Curtis Main, two crucial interventions at a key point in the match. It’s exactly what he was signed for.
“It was pleasing,” he told the Evening News. “As a goalkeeper, you want to keep a clean sheet in every game you play. If you can make saves to help that along the way, then good. It’s not just me. The back three or back five have been great. I thought James was excellent on Friday on his debut. He came in and put in a great performance. You know what you’re getting with Sibbs [Sibbick] and Kye. They are very good players and as a whole unit they did well.
“Friday was a tough game. We played St Mirren at their place the previous week and they have a good home record. We knew they would have taken confidence from how they played. I thought we dug in really well when we needed to and getting the win was important to keep us clear in third place. All we can keep doing is focus on ourselves and try to get as many points as we can.”
There is an element of relief at the back of Clark’s mind whilst all this is playing out positively. He left former club St Johnstone in May, didn’t join Hearts until September, and didn’t appear competitively for the Edinburgh club until Gordon’s horrific injury on Christmas Eve at Tannadice. More than six months without proper action left him, understandably, wondering how he would fare.
“Yeah, I’m happy enough with my form. It’s obviously difficult coming in to fill the big man’s boots given how good he has been. I just go in and play my usual game. I had been out for so long and you get that fear that you might be a little bit rusty. We had the World Cup break so I managed to get a good amount of minutes in during the winter trip to Spain. It’s always good to play games with a real meaning to them and get that competitive side going again.”
The only negative was an object thrown from the Hibs support which struck Clark and drew blood during Hearts’ 3-0 victory earlier this month. The goalkeeper spoke out at the time to demand action against those who launched missiles in his direction during the match. That apart, he has experienced a fairly seamless transition from No.2 to No.1 at Tynecastle.
“I’m loving it,” he said. “As a goalkeeper, you know only one of you can play. I’ve had to bide my time and make sure I was ready for when I was called upon. I’m feeling good and enjoying the consistency of playing games every week. You’re not in for one and out for one, so I just need to keep working hard on the training pitch and hopefully keep going.”
He knows relaxing is not an option. Gordon is hobbling about on crutches at the moment but, although ten years the senior of 30-year-old Clark, he fully intends to reclaim that goalkeeping position in time for next season. It promises to be an intriguing battle to see who prevails.
“When you come into a club and you know Craigy and Cheesy [Ross Stewart] are there, you know it’s going to be difficult to get into the team,” admitted Clark. “Goalkeepers know only one guy can play but everybody wants to push each other on and help the keeper who is playing. Each day in training, we push each other to the limit. We’re a tight group and that’s only good for the club.”
A result against Aberdeen would extend Hearts’ unbeaten run to eight matches and continue momentum for Sunday’s Scottish Cup Edinburgh derby at Easter Road. The back-to-back fixtures against St Mirren became two proverbial dogfights, hence there is a degree of satisfaction in Gorgie after garnering four points from the six available.
“We have done well since we came back after the World Cup,” said Clark. “Now it’s about us maintaining those standards as a group, recovering well after games, and making sure we put the work in on the training pitch. The gaffer and all the coaches always have a gameplan for us every week so it’s up to us as players to execute that and keep the momentum we have built going.”