Hearts fans have been assured that there is no shortage of ambition at the club, with director of football Craig Levein admitting that the current target was greater than the much talked-about top six.
Speaking to around 300 shareholders at yesterday’s annual general meeting, he promised that no-one at the club is resting on laurels, while owner Ann Budge later refused to rule out the possibility of spending a little extra cash in January if she feels that will be reflected in the final league position.
Building on a hugely successful year in the Championship, winning promotion to the top flight in convincing fashion, Levein admitted that there was a need to guard against complacency but he said that rather than pat themselves on the back, the football department was striving to deliver something even better this term.
“Once you win something, it’s a dangerous time because sometimes people put their feet up and think they’ve achieved something. But I can assure you that isn’t happening here and there’s no lack of ambition. As much as Robbie [Neilson, Hearts’ head coach] and everyone else talks about finishing in the top six, I can assure you our ambitions are much greater than that. We talk regularly about what we want to do but I’m not going to say what the target is because it’ll create a headline. Trust me, we are trying everything we can to finish as high up the league as possible.”
At the moment they are sitting third in the table, one point behind second-placed Aberdeen and eight points behind league leaders Celtic. They have suffered just three defeats in 16 Premiership games since their return to the top flight and are unbeaten in their last eight.
But Levein said that everyone at the club is looking for even more. “It could always be better. I personally feel we’re not at the top of our game yet. That’s partly because we’ve brought in a lot of new players, some who have taken longer to settle in than others. We’ve had a lot of injuries early in the season and haven’t really had a settled team for most of the time. It encourages me greatly that I know we can do better. I’m looking forward to seeing that between now and the end of the season.”
In a bid to bolster that bid, the club have moved to extend the contracts of key personnel, with both Arnaud Djoum and Igor Rossi signing on until May 2017, and other negotiations are ongoing, with Osman Sow among those being offered a contract extension.
Dependent on the outcome of those talks, more new faces could be added in January, according to Budge, who admits the director of football has already convinced her to stretch the original budget for this season but stressed she would not rubber stamp reckless spending.
“Craig’s said we’ve got people whose contracts we want to extend. If we can’t, that’s one scenario. If we can that’s a different one.There are things we would like to do but will depend on all of these things coming together.
“So far, as you know, we’ve agreed terms with two of the players and we’re talking with a number of others. If we can get that done then we know where we stand. Right now we don’t.”
Levein told shareholders that one of the key points was striking a balance between having a team capable of pushing for success now and enlisting players who could be developed and provide sell-on value for the club.
“At the end of the season, we lost or moved on a number of players, and the challenge after that was to recruit better players,” he said. “Moving up to the Premiership, we knew we were going to be facing teams with quicker, stronger players who are better organised, so we needed to recruit better players than we had last season. It’s an ongoing process.
“Some of the players we bring are what I call ‘stabilisers’. They might not have any resale value, but they are the experienced guys who play important positions and who will help the younger players develop because ultimately that’s what we’re about.
“It looks like we’ve signed foreign players because it’s a policy, but it’s not a policy. The only policy we have got is value for money. If you try to to sign players from England, it’s expensive. But when you sign foreign players you also have the issue of needing to give them time to settle in. I ask for patience from the fans to let people settle in.”