Craig Wighton admits he is fighting to save his Hearts career because he hasn't performed so far

Striker says criticism from fans was inevitable
Craig Wighton is eager to take his chance at Hearts.Craig Wighton is eager to take his chance at Hearts.
Craig Wighton is eager to take his chance at Hearts.

Craig Wighton benefits from a priceless opportunity in Hearts’ first three Betfred Cup ties, starting tonight. It’s a chance he thought would never materialise after joining Arbroath on loan in January.

First-choice striker Liam Boyce is on international duty with Northern Ireland until next Thursday, and Wighton will play centre-forward in his absence against Inverness this evening. Then it’s Cowdenbeath on Saturday and Raith Rovers three days later.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

New manager Robbie Neilson is publicly backing the 23-year-old deputy, who knows he must rise to the occasion. He is in the final year of a three-year contract, the first two of which have been spent dealing with frequent criticism from Hearts fans on top of injuries.

There is clear awareness in the player’s mind that it is now or never. He has yet to live up to the billing since Hearts paid a six-figure sum to sign him from Dundee in August 2018. The opportunity to stake his claim exclusively probably won’t come along again.

“I'm looking forward to it. I've had a lot of criticism since I've been here but that's always going to happen if you join a club for money and you don't perform,” said Wighton, who has looked energetic in pre-season matches.

“It's not something I try to look into. Sometimes it's hard but the fans pay their money and at the end of the day they can say what they want. I'm just looking to try and prove people wrong. This is my last year here so I'm fighting for my future.

“I don’t think the injuries have helped but the times I have been fit and played I’ve been disappointed with myself. I won’t hide away from that. It’s a mixture of things but it’s a fresh start, a fresh start for everyone.

“The manager has told me where he sees me playing and what he wants me to do so it’s up to me. It’s a chance to kick-start my time here.

“I’m in my last year here so I need to do something and the manager has given me that chance. I need to repay the faith he’s had in me so far.”

It is a welcome change given Wighton had virtually no hope of fighting his way into the plans of Neilson’s predecessor, Daniel Stendel. He scored three times in five appearances at Arbroath and feels better equipped to take his chance back at base.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Looking more muscular after lockdown workouts, and more aerodynamic with a shaved head, the forward is determined to exploit the next three games whilst Boyce is missing.

“Sometimes you need that wee bit of luck,” he said. “I'm sure Boycie will want to get himself back in the team once he's back here, so it's good to have that competition. If you don't hit the ground running, there's competition for places all over the place in this squad.

“It's been a tough couple of years and everyone knows that. The manager came in and said to me straight away that it's down to me. I've worked hard over lockdown and he has shown a lot of faith in me so far, so I'll be looking to repay that.

“It always helps to have a manager who believes in you. Robbie has told me where he sees me playing and what he wants me to work on. To have that, and for him to communicate, makes things a lot easier.

“I had the opposite of that last season when the [previous] manager came in. That's one of these things that happen in football so I had to go elsewhere.

“I think the loan spell helped, even though it was cut short. I played against Dundee United last season so that manager has obviously seen me in that game.”

He modestly omits the fact he scored Arbroath’s winning goal at Tannadice Park that day back in February. Neilson was already an admirer of Wighton, though, having tried to sign him in 2016 during his first spell as Hearts manager.

“I actually remember that. It was close to happening but the clubs didn't agree it at the time and I ended up staying at Dundee,” recalled the player.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"With what he did at Dundee United and first time at Hearts, he's a top manager. Everyone had that excitement coming back after the summer. The training has been really good in pre-season so we are looking forward to getting going now.

“If the previous manager was still here I probably would have had to look to elsewhere. It’s these wee breaks in football you get. I wanted to go on loan last year, play games and get back enjoying football. I did that, Arbroath was brilliant, a great club and that helped me.

“I went there and I scored in the first couple of games. That always helps straight away. I was gutted when the season got cut short because I was just starting to hit form. It’s done now, the real games start now.”

Seven months have passed since Hearts’ last competitive fixture. This evening has been a long time coming.

“It’s been the longest most of us have not played. It has been frustrating. As good as it’s been playing pre-season games, it’s completely different when the real stuff starts.”

For Craig Wighton, it has to be completely different. His Hearts career depends on it.

Don't forget you can get unlimited access to ALL Edinburgh Evening News sport stories for a whole year via our digital sport subscription. Click here to try it out today for as little as £1 a week.