Such has been the extent of Hearts’ off-pitch woes this season it almost felt like an afterthought yesterday when Gary Locke reeled off the setbacks he fears will further hamper his side’s on-field fortunes.
These personnel worries are not insignificant, even though the decision to dispense with assistant manager Billy Brown’s services has dominated the week, as has the controversy over why managing director David Southern and director of football John Murray are only now taking wage cuts. Locke and skipper Danny Wilson sought to re-focus minds on today’s clash with St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park.
While the match counts as Brown’s farewell it is also an opportunity to bring some much-needed cheer to the Hearts supporters, although a combination of injury, illness and suspension meant Locke’s latest team news bulletin was yet another gloomy insight into the manager’s role – one that is set to become rather more challenging in the absence of his assistant.
Striker Callum Paterson trained for the first time yesterday after illness while Ryan Stevenson has also picked up a bug. He, too, managed to train yesterday for the first time this week, but both players are doubts for this afternoon. Scott Robinson, meanwhile, is suspended, and Jason Holt remains injured. The influential Jamie Walker is now out for between two and three months after breaking his metatarsal.
“He had his operation yesterday and by all accounts everything went well,” reported Locke.
The question of Adam King’s future remains unresolved. Swansea City are in negotiations to bring him to Wales and while the money being mentioned would be a considerable boost to Hearts, Locke cautioned fans against presuming the club can also then replace him with another signing, as many believe the embargo rules allow them to do. Instead, Hearts would need to make a formal application to an SPFL panel, who would then rule whether the club are permitted to bring in a replacement. Rudi Skacel, one of the players routinely reported to be ready to step in as soon as Hearts are able to sign someone, trained at Riccarton yesterday.
Talks with regard to King are still “ongoing” with Swansea, Locke reported yesterday. “It would be a great opportunity for the lad,” added the manager. “He is not a player that we want to lose because he is a talented young player. But with the situation the club is in it is very difficult to turn that kind of offer down. So that is in the hands of the people who are at the top of the club. We will see what happens over the next few days.
“I think Swansea must have watched him a lot in the reserves and see him as one for the future. I see him as one for the future as well here and personally I think [staying here] will be great for his development. But he sees it as a fantastic opportunity to go down to the Premier League, and one he might never get again. Given the opportunity, I think he would take it.”
Another player whose future at the club is in some doubt is Ryan Stevenson. While Adam King’s value to the club is largely because of his potential, the loss of the experienced Stevenson would be a huge blow for Locke. The player has been linked with a move to St Mirren and also to a club in Romania. There is a clause in his contract that allows him to leave this month providing a suitable offer is tabled. This would not help Locke’s hopes of rebuilding if the club manage finally manages to exit administration in the weeks to come. “You don’t want to be losing your best players,” he said. “Obviously there is speculation about Ryan but at the moment there is nothing concrete. He is certainly a player I wouldn’t want to lose.”
Danny Wilson admitted it had been “another tough week” at the club. As captain, the 22 year-old is prepared to accept an extra burden of responsibility in light of Brown’s imminent departure – but there is only so much the players can do. Wilson also pointed out that they have become used to turbulence at the club.
“This might be seen as another disruption for us but we’ve had disruptions in the past and managed to just get on with it,” he said. “I think we’ll have to do that again. We will miss Billy. He’s a good character and a good guy. He’s always somebody you could go to if you had a problem. He’s just a really nice man and it’s disappointing that he’s losing his job but that’s a decision that has nothing to do with us.
“We wish him all the best for the future and thank him for everything he’s done for us.”