MANAGERS of top-flight teams often see the early rounds of the League Cup as a chance to rotate their squads, but such an option is simply not available to Gary Locke.
As he looked ahead to tonight’s match against Raith Rovers, the Hearts manager admitted he simply does not have a big enough squad to contemplate making many changes, much as he would like to.
“I wish I could rest a few players, but I don’t think I’m in a position where I could rest anyone,” Locke said yesterday. “We’ve not got a big enough squad to rest anyone, and it’s a competition where we’re looking to try and get a good run.
“So we’ll go through with the squad that’s going to get us through the season. In an ideal world I’d love to have rested a few players, but I’m not going to have that option.”
At this stage of the season all Locke’s players should still be fresh, but in a month or two that is likely to change. In the case of younger players – which at Hearts means just about everyone – managers like to have the option of giving a rest to those who have run out of form after their first extended spell in the first team.
“It’s a huge concern,” Locke admitted when asked if he was worried his players might run out of steam. “And certainly, with the international break coming up, my intentions are to give the players a couple of days off. Because we’re going to need a lot of the same players to get us through the whole season. Even myself on Saturday, I felt absolutely shattered after the game, so I don’t know how the players were feeling. We know it’s a hard season, so I think when we do get a chance to give them a wee rest, we’re going to try and make the most of it.
“We’ll have boys away with the Scotland under-21s and -19s. We had eight or nine away last time – I’d imagine it’ll be about the same this time. It’s not ideal, but it’s great for the players individually to get a call-up for Scotland.”
The promise of Locke’s young squad is evident, and explains why so many have been given international recognition. After losing at St Johnstone on the opening day of the season they have gone unbeaten, winning two home games and drawing at Partick Thistle, and Locke is keen to continue the momentum generated by those results.
“Winning breeds confidence. I think you can see the players are happy with the way they’re playing at the moment and are playing with a bit of confidence in games. By winning games is the only way you’re going to get that, so tomorrow night we’ll be going through to Raith knowing it’s going to be difficult, coming up against ex-team-mates, but certainly it will be a game we’re going to try and win.”
Jason Thomson, Gordon Smith and Calum Elliot are among the Raith players who were once on the staff at Tynecastle, as was manager Grant Murray. On Hearts’ books for six years from 1995, Murray was around at the same time as Locke, and was an unused substitute in the 1998 Scottish Cup final.
The squads are therefore familiar to each other, besides which the two clubs have enjoyed friendly relations in recent years. Former Hearts and Scotland boss Craig Levein was briefly in charge at Stark’s Park in 2006, and was succeeded by John McGlynn, who spent six years as manager there before moving back to Hearts. “We’ve got a lot of boys that have been there on loan, and Raith have been fantastic for us in terms of developing our young players,” Locke continued. “We’ve got a good relationship with Raith, but we’ll certainly be going there to try and win.
“There’s a few Raith players who have been here as youths and have played in our first team, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be looking to try and put one over on us. I’m fully expecting a really hard game.”
Locke has also rightly expected difficult games in each of his team’s four league fixtures to date, but the difference this evening is that Hearts will be favourites. Having gained so much inspiration from their status as spirited underdogs in the SPFL, they may well find a different kind of pressure arises from being favourites tonight. “Possibly,” the manager said. “No-one’s expecting us to win many games in the league, but it’s up to us to try and prove people wrong. This might be slightly different for the players in that they might be favourites, but that’s something we’ve got to handle.”