Nathaniel Atkinson signing close as Hearts' stick to specific recruitment profile
Ambitious players harbouring a point to prove, many of them young with development potential, are a priority for manager Robbie Neilson and sporting director Joe Savage.
Atkinson, a 22-year-old Australian right-back from Melbourne City, will become the latest inductee at Riccarton once his UK work permit is finalised. Such targets are designed to push the Edinburgh club closer to Rangers and Celtic at the top of the cinch Premiership.
This season’s arrivals like midfielder Beni Baningime, forwards Josh Ginnelly and Barrie McKay, plus on-loan defenders Alex Cochrane and Taylor Moore all fit the profile. As does another Australian, Cammy Devlin, who is already a cult hero in Gorgie.
The intention is for Atkinson to follow suit. A right-back comfortable playing wing-back due to his attacking instinct, he was one of the Australian A-League’s outstanding defenders as Melbourne won their first ever title this term.
Whilst reluctant to fully endorse a signing which is not yet complete due to paperwork, Neilson admitted that Atkinson ticks all the relevant boxes for Hearts.
“It’s more the profile we’re looking for – the age, the athleticism. Hopefully they can come and firstly settle in quickly, then do well for the club,” said the manager.
“We know the areas we need to strengthen. Players will come in and players will go out. He [Atkinson] is one that has been put to us. It’s still a deal that is still to be done so I don’t want to talk too much about it, but it’s an area we’d like to strengthen.”
Hearts officials are hopeful Atkinson could be in situ and registered by early January, although he will need to wait for a debut in maroon. Talks over proposals to bring the Premiership’s winter break forward concluded yesterday with the decision to start the winter break early on December 27.
The Scottish Government announced on Tuesday that, from December 26, outdoor sporting events would be limited to 500 supporters for an initial period of three weeks. That prompted calls from clubs to bring the break forward to allow time for planning while Covid cases remain high.
“I found out on Tuesday afternoon about the First Minister's comments and the restriction on the fans,” explained Neilson, speaking before a final decision on the matter had been taken by the Scottish Professional Football League.
Hearts are due to face Ross County at Tynecastle on Boxing Day, a game that will now go ahead in front no more than 500 fans. “We are just preparing for the game on Sunday,” added Neilson.
“It’s a period we all like and look forward to because you have your Boxing Day games, your derbies over the course of the New Year period. We just need to prepare for the next game and what will be, will be.
“I found out yesterday about the restrictions on fans and we had an idea that things might change. We’ve already had a look at it. The players were geared up to having a week off and it’s just a case of moving that forward.
“There will also be a number of games that get played in quick succession so we have to be ready for it.”
Hearts were in favour of starting the winter break early in the hope of playing as many matches with fans as possible further down the line. Their final two fixtures before the scheduled shutdown were against St Johnstone at Tynecastle and city rivals Hibs at Easter Road. Those have been shifted.
“For me it's very important to have fans there,” stated Neilson. “We had a period of 18 months and we all accept it was very difficult to get through the games.
“The preference for the club and myself would be to bring that winter break forward as much as we can to ensure that, when the games do get played, we get as many fans there as possible. They are the heart and soul of the club.
“You would play the derby game every week if you could. It's a massive game for us. Yes, you would like a full house there to bring that atmosphere and intensity but it's outwith our control.”
Postponing fixtures to enable fans to attend is fine in theory, however repeatedly pushing games back in the hope of fans returning would create inevitable fixture congestion later.
“That's probably the biggest problem we have, the rescheduling of games,” said Neilson. “You have Scottish Cup games coming up, World Cup play-offs and other international games. It's difficult to get a date for them.
“That's not my department. My remit is to the get the boys ready for games and right now we are getting ready for Ross County on Sunday.
“Michael Smith is back [after injury], Liam Boycie will train on Friday, Josh Ginnelly is back from suspension. Stephen Kingsley got scanned although we’re still waiting on the results of that.
“It does not look as bad as we expected. I don’t think he’ll make the weekend.”
Neilson added that Hearts’ January transfer budget has not been impacted by the crowd limits. He also wants to recruit a striker in addition to Atkinson.
“We know what we need to get in and we’re moving forward with a couple of targets,” he said. “At this moment in time no, but you have to look at the bigger picture and see how long this is going to last for.”
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