Hearts score 17 without conceding in three friendlies but Craig Halkett reveals how the Tynecastle side will be judged
Hearts can feel nothing other than satisfaction at scoring 17 times without reply in three pre-season friendlies to date.
Preparations for the 2021/22 campaign started purposefully with comfortable wins over Linlithgow Rose, Civil Service Strollers and Spartans. Only so much can be drawn from fixtures against non-league opponents, however. No-one need remind defender Craig Halkett of that reality.
He knows Hearts will be measured against teams of a higher calibre and is therefore focused on two key issues over the coming weeks: Premier Sports Cup group ties and the start of the Cinch Premiership against Celtic.
Halkett enjoyed his first game since April on Tuesday night at Ainslie Park, a 7-0 rout against Lowland League Spartans in the club’s highest-scoring friendly so far. He looked trim having lost some weight and is excited at the prospect of cup matches starting at Peterhead on Saturday week.
Beyond that, there is the mouth-watering prospect of a Premiership opener with Celtic at Tynecastle Park at the end of the month. Fans should be in attendance, although how many is not clear. It is the kind of stage Hearts spent fully 12 months preparing for.
“Going back to when we were relegated, we've done the job everyone wanted,” explained Halkett. “As players, we wanted to get back up to the top flight. That's where Hearts should be. Now it's about getting off to a good start and getting the club back to the top end of that table, where they should be.
“It was good to get back out there on Tuesday and it was my first game of the season. It's nice to score a few goals but it's pre-season so it's about just getting minutes in the legs. Keeping a clean sheet is always positive.
“You have to take it seriously, get in good habits and start winning games. You want to keep clean sheets because the competitive games are coming soon. Getting off to a good start has been important.
“We are only back three and a half weeks and then you're thrust into that first competitive game. It's a cup competition so there's an edge and, at Hearts, we want to go far in cup competitions. We will take these games extra seriously. That can only help with the league games coming round.
“We are going into the Premiership, which is another step up from last year, so the more competitive games we can get, the better.”
Hearts-Celtic matches are never short on atmosphere and the return of supporters for the next one promises an occasion to relish. That it marks the Edinburgh club’s return to the big stage only heightens the anticipation.
“It's a great first game – at home, on TV, against one of the two big teams in the country. I don't think we could have got a better start,” said Halkett. “Every one in the changing room was buzzing when we found out because these are the games you want to play in. We're just raring to go.
“You hear the whisper about fans coming back in but we don't know how many it will be yet. Even a small number would make such a difference. We sorely missed that last season. Opposition teams know how daunting it can be at Tynecastle with fans in the stadium so we're looking forward to it.”
Despite a perfect defensive record so far in pre-season, defensive reinforcements are still on Hearts’ agenda. They will use a three-man defence at times during the season ahead, one of the reasons Alex Cochrane arrived on loan from Brighton earlier this week.
“The manager has said he's looking to bring in some more players,” said Halkett. “We had a settled back three or back five at the end of last season but it's always good to have competition. I wouldn't be surprised if the manager brought in another couple of defenders. It can only be good to push the squad.
“I don't think anyone should feel they have a cemented starting place. So, if he brings in new players, then great.
Experiment in pre-season
“I've played in a back three for the majority of my career so far and I enjoy it. I'm happy to do whatever the manager asks – whether it's a back three with me in the middle, the right or the left, or a back four.
“In the last few games of last season, we played a back three and it looked to be pretty solid. During pre-season, you experiment and try different formations.”
One notable aspect from Hearts’ three friendlies is players’ fitness and energy. Close-season programmes helped, as did regular training sessions at Riccarton overseen by manager Robbie Neilson and his assistants Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest.
“We had programmes to do at home, plus Jig [McCulloch], Gordy and the gaffer took turns coming in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Quite a few of the boys came in and did sessions. I wasn't in right through the summer as I was away but I got in as much as I could,” said Halkett.
“Going back into the Premiership, I think it's good to come in and do some extra sessions to get that head start. The sessions were great, obviously in smaller numbers. There was ballwork and fitness, plus some time in the gym which helped the younger boys trying to progress from the under-18s to the first team.
“I've worked hard over the summer. I haven't lost too much weight, just the usual in pre-season when you're doing a lot of running. I'm feeling good. I've put a lot of hard work in. It will be more challenging in the top flight so you need to get yourself in the best possible shape to test yourself against the top players.”