Question marks may hang frustratingly over Gary Locke’s future at Hearts but the manager is aware through the words and deeds of his players that there are no doubts over their backing.
A mid-season slump and the almost inevitable relegation from the Premiership led to misgivings in some quarters over Locke’s suitability as the man to lead the Tynecastle club forward. Most crucially, if rumours are to be believed, the apparent uncertainty of prospective new owner Ann Budge had manifested itself in plans for a return of former boss Craig Levein.
However, a run of four consecutive victories in a sequence of six matches undefeated, with improving performances peaking in Sunday’s 5-0 thrashing of Kilmarnock, combined with a dignity and strength of character during administration, have strengthened Locke’s case to remain in charge. At the weekend, Ryan Stevenson added another voice to the clamour of players who have called for Locke to lead Hearts into the Championship next season.
Discussions over Locke’s future cannot begin until a sale and purchase agreement, and a subsequent management deal, are struck in complex negotiations with Ukio Bankas and Ubig administrators in Lithuania. But Locke expressed hope yesterday that positive news on that front could be forthcoming this week and it will be then that the former club captain will discover if the opinions of those championing his cause have fallen on deaf ears or not.
“It’s nice to hear that,” responded Locke when asked about Stevenson’s support, “and it’s nice when your players have got good things to say about you. You wouldn’t want them coming out criticising you.
“I’ve said all along, the most important thing is the club, it’s not about myself, but the performances show the players are playing for the backroom team and that’s really pleasing to see.
“I’m delighted the boys are showing what they’re capable of. We’ve got a lot of fantastic football players here, a really good mix with a really good team spirit.
“In the last couple of months you’ve seen that all the boys are pulling in the same direction. They all want to be here, they all want to play here and the good thing is we’re putting good performances and good results together for the supporters.”
A resolution to the crucial negotiations involving lawyers representing Budge, administrators BDO, Ubig and Ukio Bankas will also allow Hearts to forge ahead with talks on new contracts for players, including Jamie Hamill and Jamie MacDonald. After this season’s registration embargo, recruiting new signings will also be a welcome luxury for Locke should he remain in charge.
He is aware a return for Craig Gordon will be rumoured after the Scotland internationalist trained with his old club yesterday in the one-time £9 million goalkeeper’s continuing battle to return to fitness after two years out with knee problems. However, the Gorgie boss was eager to play down the presence of Gordon, who has been linked with Rangers after training there in recent weeks.
Instead, with young players he insists are constantly improving and learning the demands of first-team football, Locke was eager to keep the focus on this evening’s encounter with Partick Thistle, in which Hearts could continue affecting the relegation issue following wins over Thistle, Ross County, Hibs and Kilmarnock.
“We’ve never really bothered about the other clubs,” he added. “It’s going to go down to the wire, which is great for all the neutrals. But we’ve improved and we just want to continue winning games and playing well in games, and we’ve done that. That’s our aim for the next two games. We want to try and put in a performance similar to the one at the weekend.”
Meanwhile, Partick Thistle midfielder Gary Fraser is determined to repay the faith of manager Alan Archibald by helping keep the Jags in the Premiership.
The 19-year-old feared his Firhill career was over after he was hit with an eventual nine-match ban following a retaliatory clash with Dunfermline player Chris Kane during an under-20s game in October.
The former Hamilton player was on loan from Bolton at the time, but Archibald signed him on a permanent deal in January after the suspension expired.
“The gaffer and Scotty [assistant manager Scott Paterson] gave me my chance and they have believed in me. I couldn’t thank them any more for that,” he said.
“Because of the ban people might have been a wee bit wary about it, but they brought me right back straight away.”
BT Sport Q&A: Rangers | Hibs | Neil Lennon
THIS week’s BT Sport video Q&A looks at whether Rangers fans will buy season tickets and if the club’s supporters will force a change of ownership.
The form of Hibs under Terry Butcher is also examined following the Easter Road side’s derby defeat while the future of Neil Lennon is also considered following the announcement that his assistant Johan Mjallby is to depart at the end of the season.
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