The 26-year-old is undergoing pre-season training with the Tynecastle club as he looks for a fresh challenge following his decision to end an 11-year alliance with Hamilton Accies. While his credentials as a Scottish Premiership-quality attacking midfielder are not in doubt, Crawford must prove he is over the serious knee injury that stopped him in his tracks last season. Louis Longridge, a team-mate of the diminutive playmaker for most of the past six-and-a-half years at New Douglas Park, believes his friend and former colleague would take a prospective move to Hearts in his stride and enhance a team bidding to improve on last season’s underwhelming sixth-place finish.
“Ali could definitely handle playing for Hearts,” Longridge told the Evening News. “I think he’s shown over the years that he can do it at Premiership level and if he’s in a better team with better players around him, then he’s only going to flourish. He’s more than capable of doing well at Hearts and cementing his place in the starting XI. Hearts are obviously looking to push further up the table and Ali’s the kind of player that would add quality to the squad. For Hamilton, in situations where we needed that spark, someone to pop up and produce a bit of magic, Ali was the one that did that. Prior to that, we had Tony Andreu but when he left, Ali was the one that filled his shoes and took on the responsibility. He’s got quality on the ball, his passing range is very good and he’s good at free-kicks and corners. He’s got a bit of everything in his game now.
“I think his best position is the No.10 role. He was always very clever in finding space for himself and exploiting teams in behind the midfield and in front of the defence. Once he gets on the half-turn, he’s got the quality to find the strikers and other players running off him. He’s versatile enough that he can drop back and play a bit deeper as well because his range of passing is very good, but I think he’s at his best in the final third.”
Crawford joined Hamilton in 2007 after being released by Hearts as a 15-year-old amid concerns about his size. Longridge admits his lack of physical stature probably held him back slightly in his early years in Accies’ first team, but he has seen his former team-mate develop into a more robust athlete over the last few years. The fact he left Accies with 39 goals and more than 250 appearances to his name (the vast majority as a starter) is testament to both his ability and his durability.
“I think last season was probably his toughest because of injury, but every season prior to that he was just getting better and better,” said Longridge. “When he was younger, I think he struggled with the physical aspect. He’s always had the quality on the ball and been good at getting goals from set-plays and things like that, but he’s worked hard in the gym to get a bit stronger. Having been injured for most of last season, he was able to work in the gym even more to build himself up. He obviously found it tough to get back from his injury last season, but having spoken to him recently, he’s feeling 100 per cent fit. If he keeps himself fit, I think he’ll now be better than ever.
“He’s already produced in the Premiership and now that he’s built himself up in the gym, I feel like he’s coming towards his peak. His better years are ahead of him, and if he signed for Hearts at this stage, I think they’d get the very best of him. He’d be a fantastic signing for Hearts and it’d be a great opportunity for Ali as well.”
Crawford was touted by Accies manager Martin Canning for a Scotland call-up after a scintillating start to the 2016/17 season which included showing up Joey Barton on his Rangers debut with a clever nutmeg of the Scouser before firing his side into the lead at Ibrox. “I’d agree with the gaffer that two years ago, he was really on fire,” said Darian MacKinnon, a team-mate or Crawford’s for the past six years. “For the whole time I’ve played with him, he’s always been one of our better players. The wee man’s a technician. He’s a No.10 but he can play in any of the attacking positions. Under Alex Neil, he used to play off the left and he was clever enough to know when to come inside and when to drift out. He’s clever enough to play anywhere.
“Obviously at times his game wasn’t suited to our style of play because when we were in trouble we would sometimes go a bit longer, and that’s not really his game. But in a better team with better players, he’ll be even better to watch. He’s had a good time at Hamilton but sometimes you can stay somewhere too long and I think he’s more than ready for a move to a big, big club. Ali saw Mikey Devlin (Aberdeen) and other boys get their moves and he’ll have been feeling he’s just as good as them and wondering why his chance hadn’t come along. If he gets a move to a bigger club, he’ll stand out. He takes everything in his stride.”
MacKinnon is hopeful that Crawford can prove his fitness and follow former colleagues like Devlin and Greg Docherty, who joined Rangers in January, in land his own big opportunity to impress on a more elevated platform.
“Ali’s always been fit and I spoke to him a few days ago and he seemed to have done well in the testing and stuff like that,” said the midfielder. “His ability’s not in question, so I think Hearts have just wanted to get him in and see what type of boy he is and if he’s fully over his knee injury. He’s a real quiet guy but when you get to know him, as I have over the last few years, he’s a diamond of a boy who’ll fit in wherever he goes. I’m just happy that Craig Levein is hopefully going to take a chance on him and let him play on the stage he should be playing at.”