Hearts: Huge treble boost for club as Craig Halkett opens up on his absence
It is understandable that Robbie Neilson is looking forward to this weekend’s trip to Paisley with more optimism, hopeful that his team can put the recent dip in performance levels and results behind them.
Craig Halkett has been missed at the heart of the Gorgie backline since picking up a hamstring injury against Celtic last month, and in the six games since the team have won just one of their five league matches and only just scraped through to the Scottish Cup quarter-finals courtesy of a penalty shoot-out against Livingston.
But as they face a St Mirren side who have been performing well of late but have had to adapt to managerial change as Stephen Robinson replaced Jim Goodwin, the Hearts boss anticipates an improved display from his third-placed side as they attempt to stretch their current nine-point advantage over the rest of the Premiership.
With Halkett available to slip into a backline that had proved so consistent earlier in the season but has faltered due to constant chopping a changing as Michael Smith, John Souttar and Halkett all dealt with knocks, there is a belief that they can again provide a solid foundation that the men in front of them can build on.
Last weekend, the defence was undermined further by the absence of Craig Gordon and Liam Boyce because of covid.
All are available again for Saturday’s match, imbuing the squad with greater experience, quality and leadership, according to Neilson.
"Getting the two Craigs and Liam back will be a big boost,” he said. “We've missed a number of key players in the last few weeks. We had John [Souttar] out, Michael Smith out, Boyce out, Halkett and then Gordon.
"We don't have a huge squad so when we lose these key players it can make a big difference.
"Getting the leaders in the group back is important. We have lost the goalie, two centre-halves at different times and the main striker from the spine of the team. Then you're asking some other guys to fill in.
"They are maybe not quite at that level of consistency and also leadership within the group. So we are pleased to get these guys back.”
Told that he could be sidelined for up to six weeks, Halkett is also delighted that he is back in contention so soon.
“You never want to pick up injuries as players and miss any significant length of time. Then when it begins to happen to other players and you go from a situation where you have had a stable back four or back five for long periods, then it can cause problems.
“It's been difficult from the sides looking on, which was another reason to get my head down and work as hard as I could to get back.
“I would never be too critical of the boys because obviously the league is difficult this year. Teams are fighting and scrapping for points all over the table. I think it's a minor blip we're going through at the moment. I don't think it's anything drastic that we really need to worry about. Everybody in the league has gone through this type of three, four-game period where they've struggled. I think it's just about looking forward and trying to pick up all three points on Saturday.”