Where Hearts need to strengthen to 'reach new heights' - the 8-10 players and positions needed
Hearts chairwoman Ann Budge’s comments to The Scotsman’s Moira Gordon were bookended with a phrase that is likely applicable to all of the club's supporters. “I am really excited about that.”
This summer, with eight European games guaranteed and the prize money that accompanies them, coupled with Hibs and Aberdeen in transition, is an “opportunity to really kick on as Scotland’s third-biggest club”, as chief executive Andrew McKinlay put it.
“We want to stamp our authority on that and we would also like to close the gap on the two teams above us,” he told the Evening News.
To do that, it means qualifying for Europe regularly and getting access to the revenue streams of group-stage football.
But to fight on what will be four fronts next season – league, Europe and both cups – Hearts need a bigger squad.
It is understood that manager Robbie Neilson, having preferred to operate with a small squad this season, wants to increase that to 24 for the upcoming campaign.
Currently there are 15 first-team players contracted for next season, 16 if Peter Haring accepts the new deal offer put to him. Loic Damour has a year remaining but will likely be moved on once more. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the likes of Euan Henderson, Scott McGill, Cammy Logan, Aidan Denholm and Finlay Pollock exit.
That will leave room for between eight and ten signings. At this point supporters will be rubbing their hands. A new season, a European campaign and the club tooling up to look forward to.
But where exactly do Hearts require strengthening?
There has to be at least two new centre-backs, especially with a back three a key part of Neilson’s tactical armoury.
It will be interesting to see how Michael Smith is used. As a wing-back, Nathaniel Atkinson is much more suited to the role, even if the Northern Ireland international never let the team down in that position. As a centre-back in a three, he could be a very useful option with some of his best performances coming in the middle of a back three.
A priority is a left wing-back. That was a position Neilson pinpointed earlier in the season as one he will look to fill this window. Stephen Kingsley would be excellent there but it is hard to see him moving from centre-back where he has been one of the club's best performers, giving the team a nice balance.
Hearts will require at least two central midfielders, more depending on Beni Baningime’s rehab and Haring's future. Having different options at the base of the midfield is vital, both in terms of individual qualities and how it allows Neilson to tweak the system, with the different opposition the team will face domestically and in Europe. A physical ball-winning presence, deep-lying playmaker and the player every Hearts fans wants, a midfielder in the mould of Colin Cameron and Paul Hartley.
In the final third, there is an argument that there need to be at least four signings made. Ben Woodburn and Ellis Simms have departed, while Gary Macaky-Steven has not provided the consistent quality Hearts would have wanted and Josh Ginnelly has had a stop-start campaign.
Two of those need to be striking options. A target man who can act as a focal point, plus a more diminutive, quick option who can stretch the opposition, run in behind and play in a strike partnership or in a wider forward role.
On top of those two, a winger and an attacking midfielder similar to Woodburn who can operate wide or through the middle as No.10.
Who could those players be, you ask?
There is scope for Hearts to take advantage of the free contract market, particularly in Scotland. That way you are adding players who will certainly help domestically, know the game and perhaps allow for more investment to be made elsewhere.
There are five out-of-contract options in the Premiership. The club have already been linked with and held talks with Livingston's Alan Forrest. The 25-year-old is still to hit his prime and showed improvement as a top-flight player this season. A wide player who can score and assist.
Jamie McCart may have had a difficult season at St Johnstone but there is more than enough evidence demonstrating just how good a centre-back he is. Comfortable on the ball, a good reader of the game, he would complement Craig Halkett and even allow Kingsely to play left-back or wing-back. His Saints team-mate Callum Hendry is a striker with real potential. He was vital in the Perth side staying up and is a player who can lead the line, run the flanks, link play and compete with defenders.
Regan Charles-Cook is high on the wishlist of many Hearts fans but his future is likely down south. And what better way to complement a young mobile team than the experience and quality of Steven Davis. The Northern Ireland international’s deal expires soon and has been linked with St Mirren and Motherwell.
Meanwhile, former Dundee United striker Lawrence Shankland is a serious option. Down south, Connor Ronan comes off the back of a fantastic loan spell at St Mirren and is still contracted to Wolves. He is a midfielder who can fulfil different midfield roles and would add goals from midfield, while a certain Callum Paterson is out of contract at Sheffield Wednesday and still just 27.
Further afield, Hearts are understood to still be interested in quick Japanese forward Tsuyoshi Ogashiwa. The Asian and Australian markets are ones the club really like. A player like Aussie international Awer Mabil ticks a lot of boxes. Versatile forward, a good age, European experience and out of contract.
While, going by Joe Savage’s time at the club, there will be plenty of others possible gems Hearts are ready to mine.