In light of recent disappointments, Hearts fans are saying their team lacks a Scottish identity, and with good reason. The derby defeat to Hibernian left many with this conclusion. There weren’t enough players who were either comfortable with the pace of an Edinburgh derby or fully understood the magnitude of the game. Increasingly, Hearts have found themselves being outfought in derby matches, and supporters are at the end of their tether.
It is too simplistic to say the team wasn’t Scottish enough, as other factors came into play last Wednesday, such as the tactics, a newly assembled squad still gelling together, and a few players unfamiliar with the frenetic nature of Scottish football. However, let’s say for argument’s sake that a lack of homegrown players is the biggest problem, how will the club go about addressing it?
Getting a strong Scottish core is much easier said than done. Hearts paid £100k-odd for John Souttar and £175k for Esmael Goncalves, but it’s difficult to imagine them putting up that sort of cash for anyone else. Besides, the market we’re talking about, if the guys are young and relatively good, then they’ll be worth much more to their team than £150k. Jackson Irvine and Marvin Johnson both went for around £500k. Hearts aren’t spending that on a player, and they’re not spending £150k on an ageing Scottish top flight player where there’s no hope of getting a return in the transfer market down the line. They maybe should, considering the criticism that’s been levelled at this approach recently, but it’s hard to argue you’re getting good value for money when there are players of similar ability available on a free.
The only logical way for Hearts to get “more Scottish” this summer is if they bring players into the club on a freedom of contract. Unfortunately, in this writer’s opinion, the best of those talents just went off the market after Brian Easton agreed a new deal at St Johnstone.
The fact that Hearts, as far as we know, never tried to make a move for Easton tells us everything we need to know about the flaw in the club’s signing policy. He is a known commodity in Scottish football. He was great at Hamilton, he’s great at St Johnstone and he even managed to look half-decent during a brief spell in a god awful Dundee side four years ago. He’s a great two-way full back, capable of influencing the game in both attack and defence, and would have sorted out Hearts’ problems on the left side of their defence. Not since Lee Wallace have the club had a really good player at the position, and Juwon Oshaniwa, Faycal Rherras and Lennard Sowah have all failed to impress in the past year and a half.
It’s maybe a little insulting to St Johnstone to assume Easton would definitely have wanted to go if Hearts made a move, but everything about modern football tells us a player would jump at the chance to earn more money at a bigger club. Regardless, Hearts should have least posed the question.
So who does that leave? Here’s a list of the top ten Scottish top flight players available on a free this summer...
1. Danny Swanson (St Johnstone)
2. Kenny Miller (Rangers)
3. Ryan Jack (Aberdeen)
4. Sean Welsh (Partick Thistle)
5. Stephen Pearson (Motherwell)
6. Chris Burke (Ross County)
7. Chris Millar (St Johnstone)
8. Peter Pawlett (Aberdeen)
9. Liam Craig (St Johnstone)
10. Marcus Fraser (Ross County)
You can’t imagine Swanson would go to Hearts. Hibs are interested in him, he’s a lifelong Hibs fan, and having been largely ignored during his six-month spell at Tynecastle, he’d probably love nothing more than to get one over on his former employers.
Miller will probably sign a new deal at Rangers and would likely be too expensive anyway in terms of wages. Stephen Pearson, Chris Millar and Chris Burke are all in their mid-30s. It’s not necessarily a problem - Don Cowie has been a solid signing for Hearts - but it’s a bit of a gamble when you’re trying to stabilise the first-team squad after two-and-a-half years of constant turnover.
That leaves Ryan Jack, Sean Welsh, Peter Pawlett, Liam Craig and Marcus Fraser. Any Hearts fans reading will already have sprayed their laptop/PC screen with tea having read the name Liam Craig, following the midfielder’s poor spell with Hibs, so he’s out. Of the remaining four, Jack would be the ambitious move. He’s Aberdeen club captain, was once tracked by Roma, and will likely be looking to move to the English Championship if he moves on. Although, Hearts felt confident enough to make an offer to Niall McGinn, so they shouldn’t be hesitant about approaching Jack.
Welsh is an ex-Hibs player (and fan) with a history of injury problems. But he’s having a great season and is a midfielder unafraid to get on the ball and make things happen, while also getting involved in the grubbier side of the game.
Pawlett would be a decent flier. His career has stalled at Aberdeen, but as he showed in the 2013/14 season, there is a lot of talent to work with, while Fraser is a dependable defender who can cover at both right and centre back.
Therefore, if Hearts desperately want to get more Scottish, my top flight recommendations would be...
1. Ryan Jack (Aberdeen)
2. Sean Welsh (Partick Thistle)
3. Peter Pawlett (Aberdeen)
4. Marcus Fraser (Ross County)
It’s not an altogether inspiring list, but they would improve the side. Consider this...
Jack/Welsh > Perry Kitchen
Pawlett > Malaury Martin
Fraser providing stable back-up at two positions
The other side of the argument is that it’s a bit of a fallacy to say you definitely need Scottish players. Arsenal were famously the first English Premier League side to fill an entire team of non-English players. That was during the 2004-05 season. They didn’t win the league, but they came second on 83 points, a total good enough to win them the title on seven other occasions. They also won the FA Cup that year.
Players don’t necessarily have to be Scottish, they just need to know what it takes to win a high tempo, high energy, frenzied match in the Scottish top flight. So if we drop our “Scottish only” tag, the list of available players who’ve got experience playing in this league looks a bit more promising.
Here’s the top ten non-Scottish top flight players available on a free this summer...
1. Niall McGinn
2. Scott McDonald
3. Josh Meekings
4. Alan Mannus
5. Greg Tansey
6. Gary Dicker
7. Ash Taylor
8. Craig Curran
9. Alex Schalk
10. Lionel Ainsworth
Now suddenly it’s a list to get more excited by. Mannus, in particular, would be an excellent signing as he’s just what Hearts need: a veteran goalkeeper to play for a couple of seasons while Jack Hamilton continues to learn the game. If you’re wanting fight, there’s few players with more dig than Scott McDonald or Craig Curran. Greg Tansey is in the Sean Welsh mold of someone who’s happy to take responsibility on the football. While Josh Meekings is a talented defender who wouldn’t look too uncomfortable in a team looking to play from the back.
Whether Hearts want to go Scottish, British, SPFL proven or continue to recruit from abroad, Hearts have to try and show more patience with some players than they have so far in the Craig Levein era. The turnover has been too high and, often, those coming in haven’t been an improvement on the player they’re replacing. They need to formulate a culture within the dressing room. While it’s not a must, getting in a few proven SPFL players would probably go a long way to ensuring that.