KEY players such as Morgaro Gomis, Osman Sow and Alim Ozturk have taken the bulk of the plaudits in Hearts’ unbeaten run in the Championship – but over the course of the campaign, the fringe performers could prove to be just as important.
Head coach Robbie Neilson certainly seems to think so, and he has assembled a squad which has credible alternatives for nearly every position. If Sow and Soufian El-Hassnaoui are unavailable or off form, James Keatings and Dale Carrick can fill in up front. If Gomis and Prince Buaben are out, Jason Holt and Miguel Pallardo are more than able midfield deputies.
And so it goes on. But an important issue for Neilson to address, especially in the case of incomers who have not seen much first-team action, is how to ensure they are on their toes when their chance comes. Some players can become easily demotivated, especially when they are left out of a team that keeps on winning.
For 21-year-old Brad McKay, who will deputise at centre-half for the injured Danny Wilson at Falkirk today, the important thing when you are left on the sidelines is to have an incentive.
He said: “It has been difficult for boys like myself and Kevin [McHattie], who played in a 5-0 win over Livingston but ended up out of the team.
“It’s important that guys who are out of the team are given something to work on. I was given something to work on and that keeps your head right. If you don’t have that then you do wonder whether your time is up and you should be playing somewhere else.
“I asked the manager: ‘What do I need to do to play for you?’, because I want to be part of this winning run. He told me to be consistent and, first and foremost, defend. It was an honest answer and I was delighted with that.
“In under-20 matches I was complicating things and trying to impress far too much. I went away from that and started to defend better and I feel better for that and believe in myself. I’ve started to believe that I’m a good player again and I’m doing the things I am good at – back to basics.
“There will be a time when we’re all needed, myself included. It’s not nice waiting for an injury or suspension, and I’m determined to stake my claim and show that I’m good enough to be a regular. Hopefully I can prove that.
“The guys who have been playing every week have been great.”
With the odd spectacular exception such as Ozturk’s stoppage-time equaliser against Hibs, Hearts have had workmanlike virtues to thank for most of their recent results.
While the leaders still have the best goal difference, second-placed Rangers have now scored more, and in three of their last four games, Hearts have scored just a single goal in each.
That was still enough to earn seven out of nine points from these games, and showed the work ethic that Neilson has drilled into his team.
“There’s a different feel playing for the first team compared to last season,” McKay said. “It’s hard to put my finger on but, after the game against Raith [a 1-0 win last Saturday], you could feel that everyone wants to work for each other now. If you’re in trouble and need a pass, there’s always someone ready to show for the ball and put themselves in trouble for you. To play in a team like that is a great feeling.”
Hearts play Rangers and Celtic in successive weekends after this – Ally McCoist’s team in the league, and the Premiership champions in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup.
But McKay knows that neither he nor any of his team-mates can afford to look ahead to those matches until this afternoon’s tricky visit to Falkirk is out of the way.
He said: “I know there’s two big games coming up, but the Falkirk game’s the first game that I look at.
“I was nervous in the Raith game because I had waited so long for a chance to get back in the team, and now that chance has come I’m just going to focus on the Falkirk game and concentrate on just what I’m good at. Hopefully that will be enough to stake my claim to a place.”
Former Hearts coach Peter Houston is now in charge at Falkirk and brought in the likes of goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald and forward David Smith from Tynecastle in the summer.
Speaking ahead of the match at Falkirk Stadium, Neilson said: “Falkirk are a good team. They’re experienced and they’ve got a lot of players who’ve played in the Premiership or the Championship for a long time.
“They’ve got experience but a lot of good, young players as well that are developing.
“We know it’s going to be difficult. We’re taking another good support there. It’ll be difficult on the astroturf, it’s a different surface again for us. We’ll try and prepare properly for it.
“We had a good result against them last time and hopefully we can do the same.”