It has not been a harmonious season at Tynecastle. From displeasure greeting the full-time whistle as Heart of Midlothian defeated FC Infonet 2-1 in Europa League qualification, to the fury following the exit at the hands of Maltese side Birkirkara, to Robbie Neilson being booed at Inverness.
While the club and the fans have never been closer through the Foundation of Hearts, there has been a disconnect between the team on the pitch, the management, and match-going fans. Last season a plane carrying a flag over Tynecastle questioning Neilson’s position was met by a song of support for their head coach. If a similar stunt took place this season the response from the fans would certainly be mixed.
The home form has been imperious, but fans have been left bewildered by continuing poor displays and results away from EH11. Recent performances have led to fans questioning whether the team in its current guise can realistically compete for, and finish in, second place.
Yet, following Saturday’s comfortable 3-0 victory over Motherwell in Gorgie, Hearts go into Wednesday’s titillating encounter with Rangers at Tynecastle knowing three points would take them into second place. Such is the nature of football fans in 2016, a win would see a surge of positivity return.
Supporters will also be buoyed by the statements coming out of the club in recent days, both from Ann Budge and Neilson himself. Any doubts regarding ambition can be dispelled for now.
Budge told the BBC: “We finished third last season so my view is anything less than third is not very good. If we qualify for Europe and finish in the top three or four, that would be fantastic.”
Having progressed greatly since demotion to the Championship, the club want to finish second. To do that, Neilson is looking to add to the team. He spoke of potentially three players arriving, depending on who the club are able to move on. It was no surprise that a left-sided midfielder is viewed as a priority, while they’re also looking to secure a striker and defender.
Sam Nicholson won’t be back until the New Year and, even then, will take a few weeks to get up to speed. Billy King will remain in Inverness for the rest of the season, but his performances so far in the Highlands would suggest his return wouldn’t be of benefit. Therefore, a wide midfielder is imperative.
Don Cowie, Prince Buaben and Arnaud Djoum have all been used out wide, a tactic which brought balance to the team during spells last season. It has not been as effective this term. Jamie Walker is more than adept as a wide man but he naturally drifts into central areas. Robbie Muirhead has performed admirably, but long-term he would prefer to play centrally.
Much has been made of the strikers’ lack of goals. So, perhaps, a new striker is understandable. But that would suggest that one of the club’s current hitmen will find themselves being ushered towards the door. A large portion of the club’s support would offer their vehicles or financial support for the removal of Conor Sammon from the forward line. There has been plenty of endeavour with little substance. His time in maroon summed up neatly on Saturday when attempting to control the simplest of passes, which bounced comically under his foot.
The three-year deal raised eyebrows in the summer. Now it provokes astonishment among the Gorgie Road faithful. For Hearts, if they are looking to move Sammon, the contract will likely prove too difficult to shift without a financial hit. Therefore, could it mean they are looking for an upgrade on Tony Watt?
A small minority bizarrely greeted his unveiling at half-time of the Birkirkara game with boos, but he soon had the crowd eating out the palm of his hand with superb close control, strength, pace and willingness to drive the team forward. But he has only scored one goal, and all the early promise has been supplanted by positional indiscipline and a tendency to hold onto the ball too long. Though well liked by both team-mates and management, questions of professionalism continue to stalk him. If he were to depart so early there would be regret and questions of ‘what if?’
Defensively, again, the club look well-stocked. Four centre-backs, two right-backs, a left-back, a centre-back who can play left-back (Igor Rossi), and a left-back who is more mystery than man. The enigma that is Juwon Oshaniwa is clearly persona non grata, and another three-year-deal noose. When the team needed a left-back against St Johnstone he was nowhere to be seen. When Neilson opted for a 3-5-2, Walker was preferred in a left-wing back position that would have suited the Nigerian. The club will be doing their utmost to remove him from the squad.
Then there is the case of Alim Ozturk. Despite injury issues in pre-season he started the European campaign before suspension ruled him out the league opener against Celtic. He came back in for the Betfred Cup encounter with St Johnstone and duly played his way out the team with an error-strewn performance.
He hasn’t looked like the player whose absence was seen as pivotal in the team exiting the Scottish Cup to Hibernian last season. In an intriguing move which could have potentially upset the dressing room dynamic the captaincy was removed from his bicep. Yet, when given the opportunity to redeem himself he has failed to grasp it. In his most recent outing at the SuperSeal Stadium in a 3-3 draw with Hamilton Academical, he appeared to be trying to outdo the shambolic performance at St Johnstone. Ozturk and the club may find common ground and an agreement that could be best for all parties if he moved on. Like Watt, but for different reasons, it would be a anti-climatic and disappointing parting of ways.
Neither a defender or striker, Prince Buaben could be another whose future is away from Tynecastle. He appeared close to leaving towards the end of the summer transfer window. So close, in fact, that he travelled to Dingwall to discuss terms with Ross County. Callum Paterson’s future definitely lies away from Edinburgh but only a suitable offer will prise the Scotland right-back before the summer.
As the 22-year-old’s contract expires at the season’s end, the club should be looking towards the full-back position. A left-footed left-back would add competition and depth as well as a view to replacing Paterson with Faycal Rherras moving across to challenge Liam Smith.
With Bjorn Johnsen nailing down club’s number 9 position, any forward coming in will likely be of the versatile mould. Someone who can link play in the final third and move laterally to create space for the likes of Nicholson, Walker and Djoum. Someone who is not going to cramp the play in midfield and one who understands space. There’s not many of those strikers available for a club like Hearts and they may already possess such a player. Yet, Neilson obviously has names and targets. Could Greg Stewart, a player who has interested the Hearts boss in the past and is struggling for playing time at Birmingham, be one such target?
The club have shown since the regime of Budge, Craig Levein and Neilson came together that they are ruthless and act without sentimentality when it comes to recruitment. There are options for Neilson to make room for newcomers. Some of those who depart may surprise and disappoint, but everything the club do is in the aim of progress, and progress comes in the shape of a second-place finish.