Hearts look to finish job in Livingston and take third place going into break

Halkett braced for tough challenge against his former club as they face struggles

The goal is straightforward for Hearts in West Lothian for their first match of 2024: Win and they will go into the winter break in third place in the Premiership.

Such a prospect seemed bleak a few weeks ago when, after a miserable December defeat by Aberdeen at Pittodrie, manager Steven Naismith questioned the character and fortitude of his players. They have responded emphatically. Three big wins against Celtic, St Mirren and capital rivals followed, before a clearly jaded Hearts fought back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at home to Ross County. The fruits of their labour mean they have 33 points going into Tuesday afternoon’s match against bottom club Livingston. Victory will guarantee them third place before the league shuts down for three weeks

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“We want to finish this tough run of games on a high, so it’s a crucial one,” said defender Craig Halkett, who has just returned from a serious knee injury. “We spoke about it, December’s a really tough month for everyone. And the team who puts a really good run together always seems to come out on top, if you can pick up a lot of wins. We have done brilliantly to get into third and then just to finish off this block there would be good.”

Craig Halkett challenges Jordan White during Hearts' 2-2 draw with Ross County.Craig Halkett challenges Jordan White during Hearts' 2-2 draw with Ross County.
Craig Halkett challenges Jordan White during Hearts' 2-2 draw with Ross County.

Halkett started the game against County and is likely to be called upon again against his former club at the Tony Macaroni Arena. Fellow defenders Kye Rowles and Nathaniel Atkinson are away with Australia at the Asian Cup and could miss up to seven matches. It will give Halkett the game-time he craves after being on the sidelines for the best part of a year.

"It has been a long year and myself, the manager and the sports scientists all know it’s going to take a few games to get back up to 100 per cent,” explained Halkett. “But right now I am feeling as good as I can be. It was always important for me to come back in and play a couple of games before the break. I didn’t want to go into the break not having featured, so it was good to get some minutes under my belt. Like I said, it was always going to take time after such a long time out to get up to 100 per cent. We have another game on Tuesday and then I can work hard during the break to come back.”

Halkett would be within his rights to have concerns playing on Livingston’s artificial pitch so soon after knee surgery but the 28-year-old has no qualms. “I played on that pitch for three and a half years, so I’m pretty used to it,” he said. “It’s not something I have in the back of my head. When we go to Kilmarnock we practice on astro a couple of days before just to get used to bounces and the way the ball goes. So it’s not something I am thinking about, to be honest.”

He also knows what to expect from Livingston and his former manager David Martindale. The Lions are on a terrible run of form and cast adrift at the foot of the table. “I am, to be honest,” Halkett responded when asked if Livi’s travails surprised him. “The work Davie has done there since I was there and since I have left has been brilliant. He says it himself, at the start of every season everyone tips them to go down and they always defy the odds. I think for a club like Livingston they have been in the top league for five or six years now and it was a great achievement every single year they did it. So to see where they are is a bit of a surprise but I still think they’ll have enough to get out of it.”

Halkett knows what to expect from his former club Livingston.Halkett knows what to expect from his former club Livingston.
Halkett knows what to expect from his former club Livingston.

Just not against Hearts, though. “The momentum we have got and the run we’ve been on has been important for everyone in the building,” added Halkett. “I think you see we’ve had a few injuries but we are getting people back and there’s competition for places now. That helps. It’s always tough down there. From their point of view it’s about getting that goal or taking a lead in a game to kick that on. We’ll go there and try and make sure that doesn’t happen, but it’s going to be tough.”

Martindale, meanwhile, hopes new striker Tete Yengi can add much-needed firepower to his Livingston side. The 6ft 5in Australian has joined on a two-and-a-half-year contract from Ipswich. He joined the Suffolk club from Newcastle Jets in 2021 but did not make a first-team appearance. Yengi has just returned from a loan spell with Finnish side KuPS, where he scored two goals in 15 appearances. The 23-year-old could make his debut against the Jambos.

Livingston have only scored three goals during a 12-match run without a win that has yielded only two points and Martindale said: “Tete comes with some great references and done very well from his time spent playing in Finland so I’m pleased to be able to add him to the group. It’s a difficult window to attract players to a club but it has been made even more difficult considering our league position, so it speaks volumes for the player and his attitude that he is embracing the challenge we face as a club.

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"I’m really happy that we have managed to bring in a much-needed offensive option, albeit I hope that we can add a further player in this area in the window too. Ipswich Town have been very helpful and done all they can to help facilitate the transfer. The player comes in with a large sell on for Ipswich Town and a small contingency built in if we can manage to retain our Premiership status next season.”