Why Craig Halkett has the attributes to fill Peter Haring’s midfield void for Hearts
Peter Haring’s influence on Hearts is emphasised by the fact the club want to sign a holding midfielder from the same mould to deputise for the injured Austrian. That recruitment project is ongoing, but a short-term solution is required for Sunday’s opening Ladbrokes Premiership match against Aberdeen.
Craig Halkett doesn’t sport a man bun or speak with an Austrian-German accent, however he is the closest thing Hearts have to Haring. Both share a physical presence, combative edge, aerial strength, decent technique, passing range and a goalscoring threat. Shunting Halkett from centre-back into midfield until a reinforcement arrives might be a worthwhile, or even necessary, experiment.
Manager Craig Levein revealed in this newspaper yesterday that he will consider playing Halkett, John Souttar and Christophe Berra in a three-man central defence at Pittodrie. That would accommodate two of last season’s automatic starters in captain Berra and vice-captain Souttar, plus a new signing who has quickly become very difficult to leave out.
Three goals and an assist during three Betfred Cup group appearances this month have confirmed Hearts’ wisdom in signing 24-year-old Halkett on a three-year deal from Livingston. He is, and will rightly remain, a central defender but could offer a stop-gap answer to the problem of replacing Haring in midfield.
Hearts did not deviate from a back four during their Betfred Cup group games. Should that remain the case against Aberdeen, Halkett sitting in front of Souttar and Berra as a defensive midfielder would provide useful protection.
It is not a role he is used to playing and nor would it mean a long-term change. Using players out of position is normally not advised for good reason and Halkett has already been converted once. The Glaswegian started off as a striker at Rangers before moving to defence, which explains his uncanny ability to find the net so often.
He made his name in West Lothian and ultimately earned a move to Tynecastle Park as a commanding leader at the back. He was the central character and team captain in Livingston’s three-man defence, flanked by Declan Gallagher and Alan Lithgow. Wearing gold and black, Halkett frequently proved himself adept at stepping out from the back into the defensive midfield area to win tackles, headers or instigate attacks. His control and touch are impressive for someone with a large and robust frame, plus he has the ability to see a pass and execute it.
Livingston fans adored him as he would also charge forward to score from open play and set-pieces. Hearts used those attributes to their advantage in the Betfred Cup as Halkett made himself an instant hero in Edinburgh.
There is no shortage of natural midfielders competing for places at Riccarton ahead of the league campaign. Sean Clare, Oliver Bozanic, Harry Cochrane, Andy Irving, Bobby Burns and Olly Lee are all capable central midfielders in their own right. However, none possess the anchoring, shielding and scoring attributes which made Haring so influential over the last year. It is a specialised role and one Levein values highly in his team.
News that the Austrian out for two months with a pelvic problem was a big blow earlier this month. Replacing him is proving a challenge. With Lee destined to leave Tynecastle for England, Clare, Bozanic, Cochrane, Irving and Burns have all been used in central midfield during pre-season friendlies and Betfred Cup ties. Halkett hasn’t been tried yet.
He possesses more of Haring’s qualities than anyone else. Given his adaptability and appetite to succeed, few would bet against him making a short-term success of the holding role if asked to fill in.