The inside story of Hearts’ two-year wait to sign Craig Halkett
“Oh, ho, ho, it’s magic, you know. Gallagher, Halkett, Lithgow.”
Livingston fans’ ode to last season’s three-man defence underlines their popularity and success in West Lothian. Hearts have cherry-picked the linchpin of that triumvirate by signing Craig Halkett, the captain, on a pre-contract agreement. He officially starts work with his new employers today.
His reputation as a solid central defender is unquestioned given he played in every single one of the 17 shutouts Livingston recorded last season. Making the same impact at Hearts will be rather more difficult. Besides, another version of that 1974 Pilot hit involving “Souttar, Halkett, Garuccio” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The 24-year-old signed a three-year contract to bring his leadership, composure, physicality and aerial ability to Tynecastle Park. Not forgetting a goalscoring threat. He claimed seven goals last season and eight the year before – when he and Lithgow finished joint-top scorers as Livingston celebrated Premiership promotion via the play-offs.
By then, he was firmly on Hearts’ radar. When Halkett walks into Riccarton this morning and introduces himself to his new team-mates, he will begin a chapter of his career two years in the making. “Two of our coaches already knew him,” Hearts manager Craig Levein explained to the Evening News.
“Liam Fox knew him and Jon Daly knew him from his time at Rangers. They both gave him good references. We played a bounce game against Livingston two years ago but we didn’t think he was quite ready at that point. We’ve been keeping an eye on him since then, basically.”
Levein knows a thing or two about what makes a decent centre-half, of course. One of the attractions with Halkett is resilience. The player was released by Rangers, the club he supported as a child, in January 2016 before joining Livingston and suffering the ignominy of relegation to Scotland’s third tier that summer. That sequence of events might have caused the career of lesser characters to drift into oblivion, but Halkett fought back in spectacular style.
He helped Livingston achieve successive promotions to jump from League One into the Championship and then the Premiership 12 months ago. He was appointed captain under the club’s former manager, David Hopkin, a few months previously.
It was always expected that he would leave West Lothian. When the decision was made, Hearts had to move quickly with several other Scottish clubs also taking note of the player’s prowess.
“We had to make sure we got in there before anybody else. That was key. I’m very hopeful Craig will settle in quickly and be an asset for us very soon,” added Levein.
“He is a no-nonsense, wholehearted player. He has had disappointment in his career getting released by Rangers and then had to deal with that and start again. I like that profile. I would say he has improved year-on-year.
“I think he is actually a really good footballer. He doesn’t tend to get enough credit for what he does on the ball. He does a lot of things well and captained Livingston during a remarkable season considering where they came from.”
Halkett’s pre-agreed move to Edinburgh began the decimation of a Livingston back line which had run like clockwork for more than two years. Gallagher soon signed a pre-contract with Motherwell, while goalkeeper Liam Kelly has joined Queens Park Rangers. Only Lithgow remains.
Supporters at Almondvale were justifiably aggrieved that Halkett never earned any international recognition from Scotland managers. He anchored the back three with authority, flanked by Gallagher to his right and Lithgow to his left. The competition for places will be significantly more intense at Hearts.
John Souttar and Christophe Berra, both Scotland internationalists, are Levein’s first-choice central defensive pairing. The Congolese internationalist Clevid Dikamona is extremely reliable back-up, so Halkett faces a fight.
“That’s a good problem to have,” remarked Levein. His new signing will likely agree as he relishes a fresh start. If he is as successful as he was at Livingston, there might yet be another chant in the offing.