MANY managers regard it as a good sign when their players do extra training voluntarily. For Gary Locke, it is a source of frustration.
With a small, very young squad to work with this season, the Hearts boss is hyper-conscious of the dangers of burn-out – something which his coaching colleague John Robertson emphasised as a serious concern earlier this week – and the need for regular rest. So when he finds some of his players still training at Riccarton in the late afternoon, it naturally worries him, for all he may admire their dedication.
“The ones who have come in have done fantastically well, but we need to look after them as best we can,” Locke said yesterday. “But it’s hard to hold them back – I come into my office at 5.30pm and some of them are still standing in the indoor Astroturf.
“It drives you mad, because while the great thing about them is their attitude is fantastic and they always want to improve, they need to rest. We would spend all day every day here with them if we could, but I speak to our sports scientist David Sykes – who I lean on a lot and I’ve got a lot of faith in – and he’ll tell you rest is just as important as training sometimes.
“Kevin McHattie is probably one of the worst – you’ve got to actually go down and tell him to go home and get his feet up. I don’t mind that, to be fair, but at the same time they’ve got to rest and get their feet up as well.”
The difficulty for Locke is that the commitment of players such as McHattie has paid dividends. The full-back, one of the least experienced members of the Hearts team last season, has made a significant improvement this season, and reads the game better as well as being stronger physically thanks to a lot of hard work in the gym.
The manager therefore has to tread a fine line between encouraging those players to take responsibility for their own development and deterring them from doing too much. And that is an especially delicate balancing act, given the size of the squad means he is often unable to rest players when they would benefit from a spell on the sidelines.
“The prospect of the younger players suffering burn-out has been a huge worry for us from day one,” Locke went on. “I spoke to the backroom team about it and having been a youngster myself at the club I know the dangers.
“It’s a gripe we’ve had all season that we couldn’t strengthen the side. Every club in Scotland wants to develop young players and Hearts are one of the best, but you’ve got to try and look after these young players.
“Unfortunately for me, I’m in a position where there are young boys looking a bit off it, and in normal circumstances you’d take them out the team and give them a little breather and put them back in, but we don’t have that luxury. I feel for some of the younger ones and that’s why when I get the opportunity during the international break I feel it’s really important to give them a couple of days’ rest, because we’re asking them to do a job that one or two aren’t quite ready for.
“I certainly encourage them to work hard on their weaknesses, but there comes a time when they have to go home and put their feet up as well. We have had to modify training because we’ve not got a big squad.
“There’s Jason Holt last week at training – nobody near him and he goes and does his metatarsal. So we’re another body down and we’re not in a position where we can afford to have too many injuries.
“The training is very competitive, which I expect it to be, but we try to train in moderation as well. One of the things we have tried to do from day one is protect them, because there’s a high demand on them all. The majority of them are going have to play in all of the games, so we need to try and look after them.”
Hearts have had an additional player at training this week – former Rangers defender Darren Cole, who has also turned out as a trialist for the under-20s. Locke has been pleased to work with Cole, but he is unable to sign him or anyone else because of the club’s registration embargo.
“Darren’s agent made me aware he was available after leaving Rangers, so he’s asked for training facilities, which I’m only too happy to give him.
“I’ve seen him a few times and I think he is a good player, but obviously we have a long way to go before we can sign players, so right now he’s just training and he had a game the other day.
“We can play him as a trialist three times, so it’s important to help him as much as he might help us.”
Locke now hopes his players can benefit from the international break and continue where they left off against Aberdeen by beating Ross County tomorrow. The Dingwall team are on a bad run, but the Hearts manager is taking nothing for granted.
“Similar to ourselves, they’ve played well in games without getting the wee breaks here and there. They beat us up there earlier in the season and have got a lot of players who can hurt you on their day. We won’t be underestimating them.”