Osman Sow’s ranking among Hearts strikers in post-Robbo era

Sow was a favourite of the Hearts fans from the beginning. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Sow was a favourite of the Hearts fans from the beginning. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Twenty-three days after the deal was first mooted on transfer deadline day, Osman Sow finally completed his £1 million-plus move to Chinese side Henan Jianye on Wednesday. Now that the transfer has been finalised it’s time to look at Sow’s Hearts career and ponder what legacy he’s left after 18 productive months in Gorgie.

While fans were delighted to get over £1 million for a player with five months remaining on his contract – a player who’d previously indicated he was looking for a new club – many were still saddened by the loss of a great talent.

Sow was a unique striker. At 6ft 4in with a broad frame, he looked like the archetypical big man: dominant in the air; deficient on the deck. Yet he was the opposite of that. His aerial prowess was almost non-existent – this writer can’t think of any headers he scored – while he would routinely beat players for skill, especially when given the chance to drift into the channels. When granted open space he would turn on the afterburners and race away from incredulous defenders who couldn’t believe how a man almost cumbersome in his first step could be so fast over 30 yards.

Then there were the goals. Sow didn’t have a terrific goals-to-games ratio. Part of this was down to operating so often as a lone striker or out on the left flank to accommodate first Genero Zeefuik and then Juanma. Yet he could strike a ball with the best of them. His goals against Queen of the South, Motherwell and Celtic stick out in particular. Efforts that flashed into the back of the net having seemingly come out of nowhere.

Like any player in the Scottish top flight, he would have his off days, but that mixture of power, pace and shooting ability stood him out as a player with immense potential, even though, at 25, he was older than his baby-faced looks would suggest. With Juanma floundering of late and an air of suspicion regarding Abiola Dauda’s ability, fans have said goodbye to Sow with a heavy heart and left to wonder when the next great front-man will come along.

In the meantime, let’s reflect shall we? Where does Sow come in a list of the best Hearts strikers? Before we get to the list, let’s set down the guidelines and a couple of parameters.

No inductees were considered that played for half a season or less. When you’re rewarding someone for their services to a club, five months doesn’t really cut it. Therefore, there is no Zeefuik or Lee Miller in this top 10.

The final list is not based solely on talent. If that were the case the name Mauricio Pinilla would be plastered in at No.1 and there’d be no point in continuing the rest of the debate. It had to be someone who contributed to the Hearts first team. Pinilla was definitely a better striker than, for example, Gary McSwegan, but the latter netted 30 goals in two-and-a-bit seasons, while Pinilla scored twice and spent the rest of his time chatting up women in George Street (allegedly).

There may be a couple of contradictions to those guidelines once we get to the list, but they’ll be explained in due course.

The reason for the post-John Robertson time frame is that it makes a perfect cut-off point. He was the greatest Hearts striker, well, maybe ever. There’s no doubt the club have struggled to fill his boots since, as any side would.

Anyway, here goes:

10) Andy Kirk

9) Gary McSwegan

8) Kevin Kyle

There’s a few controversial omissions in this list. Right away, you should know there’s no Michal Pospíšil. He scored what proved to be the winning penalty in the 2006 Scottish Cup final shoot-out and deserves a respectful nod for it. However, across two seasons he only netted 14 times, a whopping six of which came against Dunfermline, who were dreadful across both 2005/06 and 2006/07.

Stephen Elliott was another player who came into consideration, again for being a cup final hero. He was knocked back because his goal ratio of 11 in 65 appearances fell short of Kirk both as an overall total and goals-to-games ratio.

Kirk was Hearts’ second highest scorer in three of his four seasons, the other being handicapped by injury. He was a simple player, one who relied on speed and predatory instincts around the penalty area, but he was an effective one.

After leaving Hearts, McSwegan (who remains the only striker to earn a Scotland cap at Tynecastle since Robertson) returned to Tynecastle a couple of times and was booed by members of the home support. Considering there has since been applause for the likes of Gary Glen, this was just plain wrong. After taking an age to net following his initial arrival from Dundee United, McSwegan scored freely for around two years, including the 1990/2000 campaign where he was the club’s top goalscorer on the march to third place. He also netted three times against Hibs: two equalisers and a winning goal. And yet “booooooooooo”.

Kyle is the first contradiction of the earlier guidelines. He was a Hearts employee for near enough two seasons, but only played for six months before a hip injury kept him out and, pretty much, ended his career. The reason he makes it, and Miller or Zeefuik don’t, was his importance to the team. Hearts were flying at the time of Kyle’s injury, which he sustained in a New Year’s derby at Tynecastle, a match he netted a late winner in. After that the house of cards came crashing down. Instead of continuing their title challenge having won 10 of 11 games (drawing the other), Hearts limped over the line into third place, almost being caught by Dundee United in the process.

7) Andrius Velicka

6) Roman Bednar

5) Osman Sow

Velicka is arguably a little too high, and if you’re a fan of Aberdeen or Rangers you’ll likely be having a good laugh at this point. But he was a regular goalscorer in a team that was, in no uncertain terms, utterly dreadful. Every player behind him in the list at least had something else to work with. A decent third option in the 2006/07 campaign, Velicka became Hearts’ main man during the following season, and they might have taken a top six spot despite a horrific start had he not been sold to Viking in late February.

Selecting Sow over Bednar is definitely controversial, and there’s little doubt Bednar had more ability of the two. Similar to Sow, he was fast and skilful for a big man, but Bednar was also a threat in the air. There were games, most notably the 2-1 win against Celtic in 2006, where Bednar was utterly unplayable. However, there were also long periods, almost months at a time, where he would disappear. Sometimes through injury; sometimes through poor form.

4) Mark De Vries

3) Ricardo Fuller

2) Stephane Adam

De Vries’ final placing is an argument of effectiveness over talent. While he had surprisingly nimble feet for a man of his size, his game was mainly based around strength and height, and he was the undoubted focal point of a very successful Hearts side for two-and-a-half seasons. It may not have been pretty, but Hearts were undoubtedly the third best team in Scotland throughout De Vries’ entire tenure with the club. His home debut against Hibs provides us with four other very good reason to include him so high.

Once more, the No.3 player is a bit of a contradiction as Fuller arrived on loan in October 2001 and was gone after the season finished. He was just such a class act that it was difficult to have him any lower. He’s one of three players that you could easily make a case as No.1 on this list. His skill, particularly his ability to dribble with the football, was terrific. Similar to Kyle, he was of immense importance to the team he played in which, similar to Velicka, didn’t have much of a supporting cast to work with.

Adam never quite recreated the form of his debut season, which some of you will rightly be pointing out, coincided with Robertson’s final year at Hearts. Therefore, the rules have been bent somewhat for his placing to come so high. Although, when you think about it, Robertson was in and out of the team during Adam’s first season, even spending time on loan at Dundee. So it could be considered the start of the post-Robertson era. (You buying that? No? Didn’t think so).

A striker who had terrific movement, willingness to work and run for the team, decent skill and an above average eye for goal, he netted arguably the single most important Hearts goal since the 1950s when his low strike found the back of the net in the 1998 Scottish Cup final. That’s certainly, and deservedly, pushed him up a few places.

1) Edgaras Jankauskas

The No.1 choice may be a little hard to take for those whose overriding memory of the Lithuanian international is his disappointing second season, where he strutted around the park with an air of uncaring nonchalance. There’s no denying the fact that Jankauskas embodied a lot of what was wrong with Hearts in the 2006/07 season: overpaid, under-performing and lacking the determination required to turn things around. He was also looked upon, rightly or wrongly, as a cancer in the dressing room at a time when the team was tearing itself apart.

The counter argument and reason he is at No.1 is that his 2005/06 season, where the club finished second and won the Scottish Cup, is the best single campaign any Hearts striker has had in the last 20 years. He was phenomenal. Not only did he score some important goals, his ability to hold up the ball, bringing the likes of Paul Hartley and Rudi Skacel into play, was of such importance to the team. At 6ft 4in he was a barrier opposing defenders couldn’t get around and he could kill a high ball dead with one touch. He was a breed of player, along with Takis Fyssas and Skacel, who won’t be seen again at Tynecastle again for a long time.

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