GARY LOCKE thought the most difficult decisions he’d have to make this pre-season would be choosing which new faces to bring into Hearts.
It never crossed the manager’s mind that he would actually be pre-occupied with simply keeping his squad together.
When he was appointed back in March, Locke knew he would have to cut his cloth as the debt-ridden Tynecastle outfit looked to slash costs. He spent many an hour away from his family, working alongside director of football John Murray to pinpoint potential signing targets for the forthcoming season.
However, following the club’s move into administration last month and subsequent transfer embargo, Locke’s 22-man squad is barely large enough to cope with first-team and Under-20 demands.
Just a matter of weeks ago, all those players were put up for sale in a vain bid to avoid administration. Players like Jamie Walker and Jason Holt might command a decent fee to help the club through their crisis. But Locke, who saw striker John Sutton made redundant last week before rejoining Motherwell, is confident no more players will head for the exit door.
Around 20 people, both players and office staff, have already been made redundant during the administration process, and Locke is hoping that will be the end of the departures.
He said: “We were in a really bad place a couple of weeks ago and, once again, we have had to rely on the backing of our supporters. To be fair to them, they have responded brilliantly and hopefully we can say to them that the squad who are here will remain here now.
“If I lost any more players it would be a nightmare but it does look like we might be able to hold on to the guys who are here at the moment and that is really positive for us.”
All connected with Hearts have been on something of an emotional rollercoaster over recent weeks, in particular those who have had to go without their monthly salary just to keep the club afloat.
At the beginning of the week, the Hearts players and office staff received a part-payment advance on their July wages.
None of the squad was paid in June and they will have to wait until a new owner comes into the club to recoup any of that money.
Despite that, Locke can’t fault the squad – some of whom have accepted wage cuts – for the attitude they have displayed throughout a testing time. He continued: “The fans have been fantastic – but so have the players. They’ve all had to make some kind of sacrifice but they have just got on with the job in hand.
“We have got a smaller squad now so it is a bit easier to create a team spirit. Most of these guys have played alongside one another for six or seven years and have come all the way up through the academy.They are already really good friends away from the training ground, which really helps what we are trying to do here. We will need that kind of camaraderie over the course of the season.”
If Locke manages to overturn a 15-point SPFL penalty and keep his side in the top flight in the forthcoming season, it will go down as the greatest achievement of his career.
He won the Scottish Cup as a player and was part of the coaching staff when they beat Hibs 5-1 in the final of the same competition a year past May, but staying up would top all that. “If we stayed up, there is no doubt that it would be the biggest achievement that I have ever had in football. It would be bigger than any of the cup wins. We are 15 points behind without having even kicked a ball.
“We will give it our best shot and see where it take us.” Recent events at Tynecastle have also taken their toll on Locke. The lifelong Hearts supporter’s dream job has begun under the most difficult circumstances but there’s little doubt that he’s up for the fight.
“I can’t hide the fact that it has taken its toll,” he conceded. “It has been a learning curve for me, and a steep one at that.
“I’ve had family and friends saying to me that I’ve aged over the last few weeks! It’s been difficult for me because, manager or no manager, Hearts are my club.
“If I wasn’t the manager I would still be going along to the rallies and putting my money in. It has been heartbreaking to see what has happened to the club.
“At the end of the day, though, I have got an opportunity to manage the club that I have always supported and I wouldn’t change that for anything. I am trying to make the best of it and hopefully we will get there over the course of the coming season.
“Even as a player I looked forward to a challenge and it is no different now that I am a manager. This is just another one. There’s no denying that it is going to be difficult but hopefully we have got over the worst of it and we can look forward to the future.”
Locke added: “It’s my first pre-season as a manager and it is totally different to how I thought that it would be.
“I already had plans in place to bring new players into the club in the summer, guys that I thought would really help make the squad better.
“All of a sudden the club gets put into administration and all of the hard work that John Murray and I did came to nothing.
“That was a blow but you learn something every day.
“I have put the hours in without any end product but sometimes that happens and you’ve just got to pick yourself up.
“We are in administration but I think that the picture looks a lot less bleak than it was maybe a couple of weeks ago and that’s the main thing. The club is the most important thing here.”