BESIDES the sheer lack of bodies available to manager Gary Locke, there has been one glaring shortage in the Hearts squad this season: strikers.
Callum Paterson has worked willingly when selected as a target man but is more suited to playing wide on the right, and Ryan Stevenson, while a valuable source of goals, is ideally an attacking midfielder. No-one who fits more naturally into the position has yet staked a real claim for a long run in the team.
All that may be about to change with the return from injury of Gary Oliver. The 18-year-old, who hopes to be in the team this afternoon at Ross County, only made his first start last month in the 2-0 home defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle. It was an inauspicious beginning, not through any fault of Oliver’s, but because he twisted an ankle early on and eventually had to be replaced 20 minutes from time.
Now, though, the Glaswegian, who is the nephew of former Hearts director of football and current Clyde manager Jim Duffy, is up and running – and, he believes, ready to make his mark. Oliver returned to action in last week’s 3-3 draw at St Johnstone, coming off the bench at 3-1 down to replace Callum Tapping for the last 20 minutes. He had been an unused substitute the previous week, when Hearts lost 1-0 at home to Motherwell.
“There were a lot of games coming up and I missed out on a lot of them –including the Hibs game and the Celtic game, two of the biggest of the season,” he said of his spell out through injury. “So it was hard, but hopefully I’ll come back stronger and get a place in the team. I got my chance, got thrown in against Caley Thistle, and I thought I’d done all right. Getting injured didn’t really help it. I just landed on my ankle in the first minute of the game. I stood on my ankle and did my ligaments – not very good.”
Dale Carrick and Sam Nicholson, team-mates of Oliver’s in the under-20s, were both on the scoresheet against St Johnstone last week, so Oliver feels it was about time he also made his mark. “I’m the top goalscorer for the 20s, so I’ll try and establish myself in the first team and score goals there as well,” he added. “I think it’s 14 goals I’ve scored. If the door opens I’ll take my chance and settle in the first team.
“Physically and stuff, obviously it’s a lot harder, playing against the more experienced players. But if I do get in the team I’m sure I’ll do well. Me and Sam are used to playing together for the 20s, so hopefully if we’re in the first team together we’ll do well.
“I’ve been growing up with these boys and playing in the under-20s week in, week out with them. It’s always good to see them doing well, and hopefully my chance will come also.”
Duffy’s time at Hearts, when he worked with manager Graham Rix in the 2005-06 season, was a brief and not too fruitful one. But if the Clyde boss can help get the best out of his nephew, he may find that supporters of the Tynecastle club take to him more kindly in future than they did then.
“He gives me a few tips and has come and watched me a few times,” Oliver explained. “Obviously he was a defender and I’m a striker, so he tells me what he thinks I was doing right and doing wrong, which is good.
“I never saw him play, so I don’t know how good he was – he might have been rotten! I knew he was at Hearts for a time after his playing days, but I’m not too sure what he was doing. He’s never really spoken about Hearts – never said much. I knew he was an assistant, but that was it.
“It’s obviously a big help having someone like him to ask for advice. He was a defender, so you take tips from him: what he thought was happening in the game, and the things that I’d done that might have been most difficult for defenders to deal with, that sort of thing.”
Ross County have recruited well during the transfer window – something Hearts are unable to do – but Oliver feels his team can still travel to Dingwall in optimistic mood. “It’s one of the games we should be winning and taking points from,” he said. “So hopefully we get three points.”