DIRECTORS at Hearts are facing some crucial decisions on 14 players whose contracts expire at the end of the season. The Evening News has learned that ten first-team members and four youth players are out of contract next summer, with some of those expected to leave Tynecastle under freedom of contract.
The players in question are Ryan McGowan, Darren Barr, Andy Webster, Scott Robinson, Andy Driver, Arvydas Novikovas, Marius Zaliukas, Gordon Smith, Kevin McHattie, Dale Carrick, Jack Hamilton, Fraser Mullen, Brad McKay and Danny Thomson. All are in the final year of their existing deals, although McGowan has already held one round of talks over an extension.
Peter Enckelman, the Finnish international goalkeeper who joined Hearts in August, is out of contract in January having only signed a short-term agreement to provide cover for first choice Jamie MacDonald. It is not yet clear if he will be kept on. With new goalkeeping coach Alan Combe also registered to play and reserve keeper Mark Ridgers recovering well from injury, there would appear no pressing need to keep Enckelman.
Those whose contracts finish next June are, of course, able to sign pre-contract agreements with other clubs come January. Hearts are keen to avoid anyone they consider a valuable asset being lured elsewhere, which would include the likes of McGowan, Robinson and Zaliukas.
In an exclusive Evening News interview, the club’s Lithuania-based director Sergejus Fedotovas explained how the board plan to approach contract negotiations. “For some of the players we have plans to enter into discussions, for some discussions about their future has started,” he said. “We would like to keep all our good players, no doubt. We will do all we can as that was always the case.
“It is important to keep players focused on the game, not their contracts. Most of our current squad have spent a considerable amount of time with Hearts and the club has invested a lot into their development and, to the satisfaction of most people, have achieved good results. We want to retain our best players to help us build results and the future. These players were developed by Hearts. Here they became who they are today, the club has played a major role in their development and will consider all options in line with the strategy of the management of the team.”
Hearts will allow the contracts of some high-earners to expire in order to further reduce their wage bill and become more financially stable. This policy has been in place for the last three seasons and has helped significantly with the Tynecastle balance sheets. However, certain other players are seen as major components of manager John McGlynn’s first-team squad and can expect discussions on new deals to begin soon.
“We are not only sitting and thinking how to cut the wage bill but we are also considering options to increase revenues. Both ends must meet. Otherwise no-one will be happy,” said Fedotovas.
McGowan has had one informal offer from the Hearts hierarchy so far, which was rejected because he and his agent felt the terms were unacceptable. The defender has progressed from the Riccarton youth academy to Australia’s senior international squad and is a fine example of how producing home-grown talent can benefit Hearts. Club officials are naturally keen to protect their investment in him and he wants to remain at Tynecastle for the forseeable future.
Fedotovas, though, cautioned that Hearts will not be held to ransom. “That was always the case and this will continue to be the case. Many players tried to hold us to ransom and you can check where they are at the moment – mostly seeking their fortunes in the emerging markets, if that is the right phrase.”
Defensive areas are, indeed, of most pressing concern when it comes to offering new contracts. McGowan, Barr, Webster and Zaliukas are regulars in front of MacDonald and carry varying degrees of SPL experience. Hearts will be reluctant to let all four depart next summer, so their futures may depend on whether they are willing to accept any contract terms offered by the board.
Decisions on exactly who to retain will ultimately be taken by majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov and Fedotovas after consultations with coaching staff at Riccarton. McGlynn had to perform a mini rebuild of the senior squad after being appointed Hearts manager in June because several high-profile players left at the end of their contracts. Amongst those were Rudi Skacel, Craig Beattie and Ian Black. The manager will be reluctant to lose more core members of the team without experienced replacements.
McGlynn, with little alternative due to lack of funds, largely turned to the youth academy to fill gaps in his squad during pre-season training. To an extent, he has been rewarded for putting his faith in youth. It could be argued that allowing many established faces to depart following May’s Scottish Cup final victory over Hibs accelerated the development of younger players. Callum Paterson, Dale Carrick and Arvydas Novikovas have imposed themselves at first-team level this season in the voids left by older predecessors. There have also been senior debuts for Jamie Walker and Dylan McGowan in recent weeks.
“Our academy and Under-20s have been showing some encouraging results,” continued Fedotovas. “We are continuing to look for the best talent. This will definitely give positive results and this club will continue to soundly stand on its feet with home-grown players.”
A portion of reliable experience is vital to help youngsters prosper in any team.
In that sense, the decisions Hearts make over the coming weeks and months will have a huge bearing on the club’s future. Allowing too many established regulars to depart could be detrimental to their plans to let youth thrive at first-team level. It is down to senior officials to take on the task of separating the dispensible from the indispensible.