The prolonged absence of supporters has been keenly felt across Scotland all season as people tune into TV screens and laptop streams to follow their team. In Gorgie, the absence of a crowd at such an atmospheric venue left it resembling an abandoned theatre.
Up to 500 fans are permitted for this week’s divisional play-off ties following the relaxing of Covid restrictions, but Hearts don’t play another competitive fixture until July. By then, their public will have waited 16 long months to see the team in person at Tynecastle since a 1-1 draw with Motherwell there back on March 7, 2020.
Anticipation is growing with Premiership promotion confirmed last month, but one summer signing in particular could raise hope to new levels. Recruiting Josh Ginnelly on a permanent contract would be akin to a marquee capture.
The 24-year-old English winger remains in talks with Hearts which are progressing well after a season-long loan from Preston North End. He only managed ten appearances and four goals in maroon as thigh and hamstring injuries curtailed his progress. Surgery ended his campaign early in January.
Nonetheless, he displayed enough of what supporters want in those limited outings to suggest he could be a rather useful commodity in Scotland’s top flight. Even at the mercy of home wifi and pay-per-view footage, supporters quickly latched onto his talent.
Ginnelly is typically an explosive wide player. His turn of pace and direct dribbling gets fans off their seats, be it in the Wheatfield Stand or their living room. He does precisely what defenders hate by running towards them at speed.
His ability to stretch defences, eliminate opponents, get in behind and score goals is everything coaches want in a winger. He also harbours the kind of confidence necessary to succeed in professional sport.
There is a sense that he has more to offer if this deal gets over the line. One Hearts supporter fortunate enough to see the Englishman in the flesh this season is stadium announcer Scott Wilson. He has followed the club long enough to offer a meritorious comparison.
“It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff watching Ginnelly,” said Wilson. “The standard hasn’t been brilliant of late but with him there is always the potential for a spark. He genuinely excites, he’s direct and he reminds me of Bobby Prentice in the 1970s.
“When I was a wee boy, he was the one I wanted to see. When he got the ball you knew things were going to happen. That’s probably the biggest compliment I can give Ginnelly.
“If Hearts get him tied up he will bring that unpredictability. When he gets the ball, you don’t know what he’s going to do. You don’t know if he will go outside or inside or cross or shoot.
“With a lot of wingers, you know they will cut inside or hit the byline or whatever. Ginnelly seems to have a number of strings to his bow. We have strikers who can score goals at Hearts now, but they could score a lot more goals with better service. I think that’s something this guy would provide.”
Keeping Ginnelly fit will be an important issue for Hearts if he joins permanently. It would be no great surprise if part of the contract offered to him was appearance-related, but he underwent surgery on a ruptured hamstring in February and is now well down the road to recovery.
Crucially, the rehabilitation is taking place at Riccarton. The player is now back running and working out at Hearts’ training complex under the supervision of club staff. It is entirely reasonable to take that as a sign he feels comfortable in Edinburgh and has designs on a longer stay.
Take the risk
Ginnelly has strongly rejected online claims that he is prone to injury, perhaps another indication that he possesses the required character and backbone to succeed at Tynecastle.
“It’s 100 per cent worth taking the risk and signing him,” added Wilson. “You know how caustic some fans can be and some have already written him off as injury-prone with comments like ‘made of glass’. I think that’s unfair.
“As the lad himself said on social media, he’s never had a serious injury. He has just been unfortunate being beset by these issues at Hearts. I think it’s definitely worth the risk. We saw glimpses of what he can do. I’d like to see him do it on a more regular basis.”
The business sense of a deal for Ginnelly will appeal to Hearts. His prime years are still in front of him given he only turned 24 in March. Loan periods included, he has been at nine different clubs in the last seven years and, for the sake of his career, needs to settle in one location to thrive.
Edinburgh may well be that place. He is already popular and could develop into an asset at Tynecastle if he produces the kind of form shown earlier this season. A permanent deal could, potentially, be a win-win scenario.
“Everybody wants a winger who delivers regularly,” said Wilson. “Your average wide man probably performs about 35 per cent of the time. The rest of the time they are really frustrating. When Ginnelly was fit, he delivered and gave the team an extra dimension. Let’s hope there is more to come.”