Craig Halkett importance to Hearts laid bare as defender prepares for return against Istanbul Basaksehir

Back in January Hearts’ sporting director Joe Savage described the decision to tie Craig Halkett up on an extended deal until summer 2024 as a “no brainer”.

Circumstance chose to reiterate the merit in that statement as later that month the centre-back picked up a hamstring injury against Celtic which forced him onto the sidelines.

In the half a dozen games that followed, his team-mates won just once. On his return they turned fortunes around and were unbeaten in 10 before an ankle knock saw him resume his spectating role. Hearts did not win another game without him.

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It had, many thought, stressed the importance of finding a suitable back-up for the new campaign.

Kye Rowles and Lewis Neilson were recruited into the defensive ranks but neither tick all the boxes and the former is injured, while Neilson is more similar to Halkett’s former ally John Souttar. Showing promise playing out from the back, his gaffer says the youngster still has to work on his defensive contribution.

While Toby Sibbick has, so far, not shown himself to be the answer either.

Which is why manager Robbie Neilson was not willing to invite a longer spell in the stands by risking Halkett when he was touch and go at the weekend but will be thrilled if, as hoped, he can welcome him back into the starting line up when the Gorgie club embark on their Europa Conference League group matches, with Thursday night’s home test against Istanbul Basaksehir.

The Tynecastle gaffer has rarely skimped on praise when talking about the defender who joined the club in 2019 and had been on the fringes of the Scotland set-up only to be denied by injury.

Craig Halkett in action for Hearts earlier this season before injury forced him onto the sidelines. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

He described the likelihood of being able to call on him this week as “a big positive”.

Unbeaten in the opening three matches of the season, Halkett was an early casualty in the away leg of the Europa League play-off tie against FC Zurich, going off with a tight hamstring after just seven minutes. Without him in the ranks, they lost that match and five of the subsequent six games.

In fact, over last season and this, two-thirds of Hearts’ on-field losses have come when Halkett has not started.

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A key figure in a back three that boasted the all-round ability of Halkett, John Souttar and Stephen Kingsley, the sum of the parts was impressive and notoriously difficult to break down. Other than two slip ups against Aberdeen and Motherwell, the only defeats were against Premiership champions Celtic and runners-up Rangers while Halkett was in action.

Without him they succumbed to the teams who finished the 2021/22 Premiership campaign last and second last, while this term newly-promoted Kilmarnock have already jettisoned the capital club from the League Cup as he watched on.

Without Halkett Hearts lack a commanding presence. Less assured, they miss some grit and a willingness to do what is often seen as the dirty work.

Halkett is the man who wins more than his fair share of aerial battles, he does not back out of challenges and wins a very high percentage of his tackles, especially in key defensive positions. Without him they look more penetrable and the stats prove they are.

Little wonder Neilson is looking forward to welcoming him back.



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