Robbie Neilson plans to reinforce Hearts’ squad with three or four new signings and is focused heavily on creative wide players.
The new manager will speak to free agent Sam Nicholson about a possible return to Tynecastle Park, although he has strong interest in England after leaving Colorado Rapids.
Neilson explained that deposed captain Christophe Berra can be an important player next season. He is also eager to persuade teenage full-back Aaron Hickey to extend his contract.
After signing the Scotland internationalist Craig Gordon from Celtic, Neilson intends to turn his attention to speedy forward players who can play out wide.
“First off we've brought Craig in. I think I need to add some pace to the team in the wide areas,” he said. “We've got some good young players in those positions but I think they need some assistance and a bit of experience.
“So we'll be looking for players in the wide areas that can really eliminate people. We're probably looking at three or four players maximum.”
Some younger squad members will be loaned out to get regular game time. “When the players come back in we'll assess them,” added Neilson.
“There's a number of young players I think would benefit from playing first-team football, but they might not get it here. We'll put them out on loan to help the future of the club. We'll assess that in the coming couple of weeks.”
Asked about Nicholson, who is wanted by Bristol Rovers among others, Neilson said: “He is one we are interested in but I think there will be a lot of interest in Sam.
“There is already a lot of interest down south in him. We will have a chat with him and see where it goes.”
Berra was stripped of the Hearts captaincy in January by Neilson’s predecessor, Daniel Stendel. He spent the rest of the season on loan at Dundee until coronavirus forced football into shutdown.
Neilson intends to restore Berra to a prominent place in the first-team squad at Riccarton. “I know Christophe well obviously. I've played with him and known him for a long time,” he said.
“For me, he's a leader. He had issues the last time here but it's a fresh start for everyone to come back in pre-season and he can try and get himself in the team.
“We've got to have leaders in the team. We've got a lot of young players in the team that have come through. The younger ones have shown great potential but that was when the team was doing well.
“When the team started to not do so well, they found it quite hard and that's when you need big characters and guys who have been over the course to help them through it. Christophe's one of them.”
Neilson explained why he made re-signing Gordon a priority after leaving Dundee United to return to Hearts as manager. “Craig's a massive one for us. He understands the club, the fans and the demands of the club,” he said.
“He's also, in my opinion, probably the best goalkeeper in Scotland. We've managed to get him and it'll give us a great foundation to build from.
“If you're going to push hard and even win leagues, you have to have a truly good back four and a really good goalkeeper. I think we've got that in place.”
Hickey will remain a central part of that back four next season unless a substantial transfer bid is accepted by Hearts. Neilson believes Tynecastle is the best place for the 18-year-old to continue developing, although he is braced for approaches from elsewhere.
Hickey’s current contract is due to expire in May 2021. “I expect interest but my hope is that he comes back for pre-season [next month]. My hope is that he plays for us over the season and we can tie him down to a longer deal,” said Neilson.
“He's still a young kid and he still needs to develop. This is a great place for him to develop. Those will be conversations we have with him in the coming weeks and we'll see how it goes. We want to keep hold of our best players and Aaron comes into that category.
"He's shown great potential but at the moment it is potential. From Aaron's perspective, it's important he plays football matches and he will get that here.
“I've seen a lot of young players who have burst onto the scene, left clubs early and not played first-team football but ended up going down to under-23 level in England. It can be difficult to get a career.
“For me, they should come in and try and play 100 games at first-team level and then make the move. It's something we'll discuss in the coming weeks and hopefully Aaron agrees with us.”
Neilson acknowledged the difficulties facing Hearts if their appeal against last season’s relegation succeeds. They would be restored to the Premiership, but an August 1 kick-off would produce huge challenges for players who have yet to begin training.
As it stands, the Championship season will not commence until October 17. Neilson insisted he would be able to cope with a quick turnaround but players would be up against it.
“I’d be ready – I don’t know about the players,” he smiled. “That’s another question and that’s the main objective. I think, in the next week or two, we’ll get clarity on that.
“If it goes our way, it’s going to be very difficult to get the players ready in time. If it doesn’t, we just have to deal with it.”
A decision against Hearts would leave them in Scotland’s second tier with a sense of injustice over the shambolic way season 2019/20 was ended via a vote by clubs.
In that event, Neilson will use the situation to harness a siege mentality within his dressing room. “I think it will be quite easy to do that, to be honest. The Hearts fans have come together at this moment and part of the reason I came back here was to be part of that,” he admitted.
“I could see what was going on from the outside. It’s been a difficult few years for the club, certainly a difficult six months.
‘It’s important that all the Hearts fans unite together with the players and everyone at the club, to move forward – whether that’s in the top flight or the Championship. We’ve got to use this as motivation to go and win games again.”
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