GARY Locke has known for some time that he will almost certainly be unable to strengthen his squad in January because of the signing ban while Hearts remain in administration. Now, as the transfer window approaches, his fear is that he will lose players from a group that is already perilously small.
The Tynecastle club’s administrators, Bryan Jackson and Trevor Birch of BDO, turned down bids for Jason Holt and Adam King during the August transfer window, so Locke can be confident that there will be no fire sale in the New Year. But as BDO’s current budget only lasts until around the start of March, and the Foundation of Hearts’ planned takeover might not have been finalised by then, the manager knows that a sizeable offer for one of his star names could be hard to resist.
“This is the squad of players we’re going to have to get through the season with, and we certainly can’t afford to lose anyone,” Locke said yesterday. “If clubs want our players and offer money the club thinks is reasonable, I could lose another player – and I can’t replace him.
“So that’s another worry for me in January, that I won’t be able to bring anyone in but that I could still lose one or two. And that would be a disaster.”
There is always an economic argument to be made for keeping a player at a club. In Hearts’ case, if the retention of one player has a vital role in a successful fight against relegation, that could be worth more than whatever the club would earn as a transfer fee. But, if BDO were to decide that relegation was inescapable, cashing in now would make sense.
However, although Hearts have still to reach zero points after beginning the season on -15, Locke is optimistic that the administrators will not make what he regards as an unduly pessimistic assessment of the situation.
“I hope that’s not going to be the case, because we have some big league games coming up. We have a lot of games over the festive period.
Hearts visit Dundee United tomorrow and Locke added: “We’re trying to get to zero points. If we can get a win this weekend, we’ll hit that target. And then we can start looking at the teams above us.
“So I don’t think Bryan and Trevor will look at it that way at all. They’ve backed us all the way. They’ve said money is in place so we don’t have to lose players, but the worry is if someone comes up with an offer that is seen as reasonable then obviously the club, like any other club, has to consider it.
“The offers that came in at the start of the season were nowhere near our valuations of the players involved. That was a great thing, because it meant we were in a position to keep those players.
“But there is a possibility that a club may come in with an offer the club might accept. That would mean we lose another player, so I’m hoping that’s not going to be the case.
“We’re trying to keep everyone here, because we only have 14 outfield players if you don’t count the boys on the ground staff. So it’s a big ask. Circumstances haven’t changed, even though we had a bad result last weekend. The main thing is the club survives and, if we can stay in the league, it’s an added bonus.”
Locke’s meagre resources have already been stretched, with Holt out until the New Year with a metatarsal break, reserve goalkeeper Mark Ridgers facing three or four weeks out after needing a knee operation and Ryan Stevenson a doubt for Tannadice because of a hamstring strain. That means Locke is unable to rest as many players as he would normally do after a heavy defeat such as Sunday’s 7-0 Scottish Cup loss to Celtic,
“In an ideal world after a performance like that any manager would look to make four or five changes,” he continued. “We aren’t able to do that here, and sometimes it can be a struggle.
“We have young players who are maybe not playing with the confidence they should be. It would be great to take them out of the firing line by leaving them out of the side but, unfortunately, with the transfer embargo and not being able to bring anyone in, we don’t have the scope to do that.
“But there’s no point feeling sorry for ourselves. We are where we are. The most important thing is that the club is here.
“There’s no doubt it’s been difficult to lift everyone, because it’s been a tough week. When you’re on the end of a defeat as bad as the one we were, sometimes you don’t want to show your face around the town.
“But I didn’t stay in. You have to come out.
“I was on the end of a couple of heavy defeats as a player and it can get a bit embarrassing, but you have to respond in the right manner. I had a 6-1 at Ibrox and a couple of four and fives at Parkhead. It happens.
“Tottenham went to Manchester City the other week with a world-class team and lost 6-0. Football can throw up unexpected results like that and it’s important the way you react.
“You have to get out there. No-one is going to feel sorry for me or the team and you have to respond.
“Monday morning was a low place. I was feeling as low as I’m sure the Hearts fans were, but you have to try and lift spirits and the good thing about football is that the games come thick and fast. We have an opportunity to put things right this weekend.
“But it’s important to remember we’re a young side which was up against a Celtic team who were on fire. We are out of the Scottish Cup now and must look ahead.”