FOR most of the season, Gary Locke’s principal concern has been finding enough players to make up a squad.
Now, as he prepares for tomorrow’s Scottish League Cup semi-final, the Hearts manager has a very different problem: who to leave out.
The dilemma is not merely because, with the return from suspension of Ryan Stevenson and the signing on loan of Paul McCallum, Locke has ample numbers. He also has to take into account the fact that, without Stevenson and before the arrival of the West Ham striker, Hearts won their last two games in style.
After winning at Ross County last Saturday, Hearts saw off St Mirren in midweek in a game specifically rearranged to ensure Stevenson would be free to play against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Easter Road tomorrow. In those circumstances, it would seem perverse to leave the attacking midfielder out, even if Stevenson himself has been impressed by how well his team-mates have fared in his absence.
“The team are flying without me!” he said yesterday. “Seriously, they’ve done brilliantly and the last two results have been excellent. Hopefully it will be more of the same on Sunday. We want to take the confidence from the last two games into the semi-final.
“I’ve shown I can perform in big games. Everyone wants to play in this type of match and I’m no different. We’ll have a lot of fans there and it should be a great atmosphere.”
If one or more of Locke’s attack-minded players had been off form, it would be a simple matter to decide who to leave out. But against St Mirren, wide players David Smith and Sam Nicholson were outstanding, while up front Dale Carrick and Callum Paterson showed a growing understanding – and Paterson scored the equaliser before a Jamie Hamill penalty secured a 2-1 win.
However, as Stevenson said, he has the mentality for big games, having scored twice in last season’s League Cup final defeat by St Mirren, and been the only scorer in October’s quarter-final win over Hibernian. He therefore looks certain to start, probably in place of Carrick.
McCallum is match-fit but should begin on the bench and take over from Paterson presuming the game is finely poised. But whatever is decided, Locke is at least thankful that he has that kind of positive problem to deal with.
“It’s a great problem to have,” the manager said. “ I’m delighted with that. You want competition for places, and this weekend we’ve got that for the first time.
“The team have been excellent for the last month, probably. I’m certainly pleased that we’re playing so well going into a huge game.”
Locke is equally pleased by the arrival of McCallum, whose height and strength offer different options. “He’s big, he’s got a goal in him, good with both feet – and hopefully he can hit the ground running,” the manager said of the Londoner.
“There is a temptation to throw him straight in on Sunday. But the team is going really well, so myself, Billy [Brown, the assistant manager] and the backroom team will look at the next couple of days’ training and hopefully pick a team capable of getting us to the final.
“Paul has been playing. He’s been a regular with the West Ham reserves, so there is no problem with his fitness. That’s important when you’re bringing in any player at this time of the season, that they’re ready to go. From speaking to Paul, he’s raring to go.
“Everybody could see that we’re lacking in the striking department. Paul can help in that area, so we’re delighted to bring him in.
“He has scored goals everywhere he’s been on loan – that was one of the things that impressed. No matter where it’s been, he’s found the net. Obviously that is one thing we’ve been lacking for most of the season – someone to get us a few goals. We hope it works.
“Games like Sunday are great. You know we’ve had a few lows this season, but the young players have been nothing short of incredible and they thoroughly deserve to be in a semi-final.
“Maybe it’s not quite so daunting now because of the way the form has turned around. But Inverness are still strong favourites, they’ve beaten us twice, they’ve got a really strong side and are still having a fantastic season. Having said that, if we play like we have done over the last two games, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
While Caley Thistle are out to reach their first ever final as a senior club, Hearts aim to get to the last stage of a knockout competition for the third season running following their 2012 Scottish Cup triumph and last year’s League Cup final loss.
The latter match was an entertaining one for neutrals, but Locke’s main memory of it is as a missed chance to win a trophy in his first match after being confirmed as his club’s full-time manager in succession to John McGlynn.
“Obviously the most abiding feeling is disappointment at losing,” he added. “And there was disappointment because John McGlynn had been the man who took us there – and he should have been the man to lead us out at Hampden.
“Unfortunately, he was denied that opportunity. If we had won the cup that day, it would have been all about John, because he was the man who got us there.”
If Hearts win the semi-final tomorrow, it will probably not be all about one man at all. No matter whether Stevenson starts or McCallum comes off the bench, it will need another solid all-round team performance to get the better of Inverness. Everyone will need to play his part.