HEARTS manager Gary Locke has admitted that the task facing his team this season is both “daunting and exciting”.
The Gorgie side finished 14 points ahead of the relegation spot last term and start this campaign with a 15-point deficit after they entered administration during the close season. The task of overhauling that deficit is monumental but the clarity of the situation could also help, says Locke.
“The fact is we know exactly what is needed. We need to win as many games as possible. There will be no meaningless games for us this season. Every one will be like a cup final.”
The financial tumult at the club has had a galvanising effect but he says that with a squad of only 17 outfield players, good fortune and consistency will be key to top-flight survival.
“Ideally, I would be looking at adding to the squad but the embargo [on new signings] means that isn’t possible, which means I am relying on a lot of young players to find a pretty high level of performance week in, week out and that is a very big ask. But I think we have some talented guys in the dressing room and we have a lot of spirit. We are all in this together and, while it will be hugely difficult, I am quietly optimistic.”
With administrators working on facilitating a takeover before the turn of the year in the hope the powers that be do not extend the signing ban beyond the January transfer window, simply staying in the hunt long enough to bolster their numbers ahead of the season run-in could be vital for Hearts.
But, with a relegation play-off also part of the equation for the side finishing second bottom this season, Locke says they can’t even look too far ahead. He says that his club’s predicament will be all the encouragement other teams need to get some quick points on the board and increase the pressure on his inexperienced squad.
“But, whatever happens, we can’t panic, we need to stay focused on one game at a time. I know that’s a cliché but this season it is more important than ever.”
Last season was a trying one at Tynecastle, battling in the wrong half of the table, and while the youngsters who played their part during that campaign have more experience to rely on, they will have to shoulder a lot more responsibility, with the old guard accounting for a huge proportion of the summer departures. Locke’s big concern is the threadbare squad’s inability to absorb the impact of injuries or suspensions.
“At one stage last season we had seven or eight players out, and if that happens again this season, I won’t have enough players to get a team on the pitch, so we need to have a bit of luck in that department and we need to compete for every ball but still avoid bookings and suspensions as much as possible. It is a bit of a tightrope.”
The boost for Locke is the fact that his higher earners agreed to substantial wage cuts to allow him to retain some experienced pros. And he is thrilled the rules made it possible to turn defender Danny Wilson’s loan deal from Liverpool into a permanent contract.
With little cover for positions throughout the team, Locke is particularly light on strikers and has very limited options at the back and he has spent the pre-season trying to figure out a system that suits his resources while moulding players into certain roles.
“It’s not going to be an easy season but it is exciting and I think we are all just desperate for it to start and to get some early points on the board and see how the teams around us handle that.”