Andy Kirk insists Hearts players are untroubled by the absence of new manager Daniel Stendel as they prepare for Thursday’s vital Edinburgh derby.
Kirk has stepped up to assistant manager from his post with the reserves since the German’s arrival. The Northern Irishman was in complete charge yesterday after Stendel returned to his homeland to take care of a personal matter.
The players will train again today before having Christmas Day off, which means the manager will not see the players until shortly before the 12:30pm kick-off on Thursday.
Stendel, pictured inset below, left soon after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat by Hamilton which dumped the Tynecastle club at the bottom of the Premiership. He is due to return to Edinburgh tomorrow evening after deciding to permit the players to spend Christmas Day with their families. This approach worked for him last year when Barnsley beat Peterborough 2-0 on Boxing Day. He has decided to keep the same arrangement because, he said at the weekend, he is “superstitious”. He has not been at Riccarton in any case and Kirk stressed there has been no let-up in intensity at training. Helping focus minds is Hearts’ current predicament at the bottom of the table.
“We’re in constant contact with Daniel, we know exactly what he wants – and we’ll put that across to the players over the next few days,” said Kirk. “We’ll make sure we’re ready for Thursday. I think he’s due back on Christmas Day.
“We’ve got a plan that was put together before he left. And we’re on constant contact. So, we’ll make sure we put across the things he wants, prepare the players as best we can.”
The unusual situation at such a challenging time is compounded by circumstances that have left Kirk holding the fort almost alone. While still on the staff, former manager Craig Levein has been told he is not to have any input in first-team matters and Austin MacPhee, who took over on an interim basis following Levein’s sacking, has been ordered to work from home. Jon Daly and Liam Fox have also been stepped down from first-team coaching duties.
“We’ve got other support staff there, as well, if we need them,” explained Kirk. “Things will be run properly over the next few days.” Paul Gallagher, the goalkeeper coach, is also helping. But, essentially, Kirk was asked to clarify, was it only him left coaching the team yesterday and today? “Mainly on my own, yeah,” he answered.
Something Kirk has over MacPhee, Daly and Fox is knowledge of what it is like to play in an Edinburgh derby. Not only that, he has scored in a match that is often referred to as the 5-1-win-before-the-5-1-win.
The striker notched the opener before four-goal Mark de Vries took over on the afternoon in August 2002 when Hearts inflicted a defeat on Hibs by a scoreline matched in 2012’s Scottish Cup final. He has been handed plenty of responsibility by Stendel.
“I’m in [this] position because that’s what I want to do,” said Kirk. “I know Daniel trusts me to do that. I’ve got a good bond with the players.
“I’ll make sure that everything geared towards Thursday is done right – and we all understand the importance of the game. Added to that is the fact that it’s a derby game and what it means to the club, what it means to the fans.
“It helps that I’ve played in derbies. I can talk to the players about the experience I’ve had. When I’m preparing the team, they’ll know I’ve been through this experience.
“It will be an important experience for some of them,” he added. “Tynecastle will be full and the expectation will still be there. The situation we’re in isn’t one that we wanted to be anywhere near. But we’ve got to deal with that. So, the derby will become a really special experience, hopefully, for a lot of players.”
The news does not sound too promising regarding the chances of Steven Naismith being involved. The striker has endured another wretched season of injuries and was taken off at half-time of his latest comeback game on Saturday. He has been hit by a reported back complaint. Jamie Walker, who was taken off against St Johnstone two weekends ago, is also struggling to shake off a knee problem.
“We are still assessing one or two players to see if we can get them back for Thursday, reported Kirk. “We’ve spoken behind the scenes with physios about rehab and we will be doing as much as we can for every player to make sure they are in the right condition and available to play.”
“We will need to check over the next couple of days,” he added. “Some of the injuries are quite close. Thursday might be too close for them. If we can push and push, you never know what can happen.”