Sidelined since September, the imminent return to action of Craig Halkett, will bolster Hearts, according to club captain Christophe Berra, and, longer term, could offer Scotland manager Steve Clarke a solid defensive option as he heads into the vital Euro 2020 play-offs.
The centre-back, who was signed from Livingston in the summer, had been watched by the Scotland coach. But, he sustained medial ligament damage 25 minutes into Hearts’ 0-0 draw with St Mirren in September and has been a notable absentee since.
The initial fear was that the 24-year-old would not be ready for a return until well into the new year but a successful rehabilitation saw him return to training earlier this month and he was on the bench for the lamentable showing against Kilmarnock last week.
That team display, as they conceded three goals within the first 16 minutes, was a timely reminder of why the fans and management will welcome Halkett’s return, and Berra acknowledged that the competition for places should focus the minds of every other defender.
“He had a good start to the season, chipped in with a few goals,” said Berra of Halkett, who is Hearts’ top scorer. “He’s a good guy, a good player and he has a lot of potential. He will be wanting to establish himself.
“The more players we can get back in the team, the better. Places are up for grabs. You need competition throughout the squad. We need 18-20 players pushing each other.”
Halkett has the further incentive of a place in the national team.
“Whoever is playing, play well for your club first and foremost,” added Berra. “Take care of that and the rest will take care of itself. It will be down to Steve Clarke. There is no point in looking too far ahead. It’s just about the here and now. But, if your team is doing well, individual will shine so first we need to start operating well as a team and if we do that individual performances will come to the fore.”
But the 41-times capped Hearts captain believes that the country will have to be at their best to make it through the play-offs, with a home semi-final against Israel and a potential final against either Norway or Serbia away.
“We can beat Israel and I don’t think we could have had a better pot to get drawn in a semi-final. But Norway and Serbia are two teams who have talented individuals. That’s a different kettle of fish. That will be difficult but you never know. It’s a cup final. If everyone turns up, and you have a wee bit of luck, you have a chance.”