SPL preview: Hearts
With big names gone and a new manager in Gorgie, expect youth to be given its head, says Moira Gordon.
THIS is a season when the old meets the new and how well they work together is going to determine just how high up the SPL standings Hearts can climb.
With the player budget slashed and notable names from last season’s squad gone, the stage has been set for the club’s academy graduates to fill the void. Club legend Gary Mackay knows what it is like to come into the first team, still limited in years but bursting with enthusiasm. He debuted as a 16 year old and when he looks at the current crop of players, he says much will depend on the willingness of the experienced pros to help the newcomers through the tougher times.
“They will need to be helped by the likes of Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas and I think they really have to hope they can keep Webby fit because, if they can do that, then he is Mr Reliable and he will shoulder a lot of the responsibility for the less experienced players.”
It is the first season for John McGlynn as Hearts manager, and the former Raith Rovers boss has yet to make any new signings. But his squad will be bolstered by a fit-again Andrew Driver, who will have a full pre-season behind him for the first time in what seems like years. There is also the return of John Sutton from his loan spell with Central Coast Mariners in Australia and the big striker will have the added responsibility of being the only centre-forward at the Tynecastle club with sustained top level experience.
McGlynn will be heartened by the Englishman’s form in pre-season, with Sutton scoring three goals in four friendlies including the winner yesterday at Rotherham.
The backline is the only constant from last term but the quandary is still how the new manager replaces experienced regulars like Ian Black and other key contributors, such as Rudi Skacel, Craig Beattie and, latterly, Suso Santana, who all left over the summer.
The youth ranks have been plundered for that reason, with a number eased into the action last season, the others back with on-loan experience under their belts.
“But they will still have to be careful,” warns Mackay. “Youngsters can’t do it on their own and up front they don’t have much competition and that’s one worry because you wonder how John Sutton will last.
“He hasn’t really had much of a break so John will have to find ways to protect him and help preserve his energy, whether that be resting him at the right time or even allowing him to sit out some training sessions.”
But Mackay still believes that Hearts will be contesting second place. He cites Dundee United and Aberdeen as the biggest threats to finishing just behind Celtic but says that confidence with be a defining factor. With so little between many of the squads and with youngsters being forced into the fray, he says a good start will be vital.
“Opening with a home game against St Johnstone and then away to Hibs, it gives the team a chance to get some confidence coursing through the veins.”
And a few games to rack up some points before meeting league favourites Celtic deep into the schedule.
“The problem will be dealing with the expectation levels after winning the Scottish Cup,” adds Mackay. “They will be one of the teams to beat now and it’s always the same when a team wins something. They also have the European games to think about but what you can say about John McGlynn is that he is a man with a great work ethic and a humility and he will demand the same from his players.”
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