League Cup final: Locke to lead Hearts at Hampden

Gary Locke will be replaced by Peter Houston as Hearts manager. Picture: SNS
Gary Locke will be replaced by Peter Houston as Hearts manager. Picture: SNS
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HEARTS interim manager Gary Locke will remain in charge for this weekend’s League Cup final.

The club is understood to have reached an agreement with Peter Houston which will eventually see him unveiled as the new manager but, with only days until the Hampden showcase, both parties have decided to put the announcement on hold to ensure there are no distractions for the players in the build-up to Sunday’s match.

On Saturday, former Dundee United manager Houston revealed he had already met club representatives and suggested that things could be wrapped up at the beginning of this week.

But, with no obvious movement, rumours had begun to circulate that he had withdrawn his interest after being told he would not be able to bring his own coaching staff. However, that constraint appears to be a temporary one, with the club apparently assuring Houston he will have scope to reshape the management team in the ­summer.

Both Edgaras Jankauskas and Locke are out of contract in the summer and, while it is believed that the current interim boss will be offered an extension, the Lithuanian will not, leaving finance for Houston to bring in his choice for assistant manager ahead of next season.

With Houston having won the Scottish Cup with United in 2010, it was assumed that Hearts would try to rush through the deal to enlist his expertise for this weekend’s match, but with several issues needing clarified it has taken longer than anticipated and the timing is no longer considered right.

Club insiders insist the focus for the time being has to be winning back-to-back cup finals and adding the League Cup to the Scottish Cup the Tynecastle club won in May. The way in which Locke and Darren Murray have managed to turn around the club’s on-field fortunes in the two weeks since John ­McGlynn’s departure – ending a five-game losing streak with victory over St Johnstone last week and then holding city rivals Hibs to a 0-0 draw on their own turf at the weekend – has also imbued their employers with sufficient confidence that they are up to the task of guiding the team to league cup glory. But, win or lose, it will be their last match in charge, according to sources at the club, with Houston waiting in the wings to take over for the remainder of the season.

Hearts are currently sitting third bottom of the Scottish Premier League, having won just eight of their 31 games. But Houston is considered the best man to turn things around.

Although he began his coaching career with Falkirk, Houston was recruited by former Hearts manager Jim Jefferies as the reserve and youth team manager in 1995. It was the start of an eight-and-a-half year spell at the capital side. Appointed caretaker manager when Jefferies left for Bradford, he was then enlisted as Craig Levein’s assistant. He left the club in 2000, when he followed Levein to Leicester City, and then returned to the SPL as assistant manager at Dundee United before being elevated to the top job when Levein took the Scotland job.

As well as winning the Scottish Cup, Houston guided United into Europe and secured them a third place and two fourth place SPL finishes. Hearts finished sixth, third and then fifth during the same period.

Houston was one of many names mentioned in connection with the job but he is, 
apparently, the only person from the shortlist to have been interviewed, and while many fans would prefer to save money by leaving Locke and Murray in charge until the end of the campaign, the club hierarchy feels that would undermine next season’s ambitions. With so many players out of contract in the summer, they say the new man needs time to assess those personnel and the squad as a whole, with a view to making a bright start to the new ­campaign.

If the current plans for league reconstruction are approved, that would be considered vital, with the bottom four clubs after 22 games ruled out of the running for a European place and immersed in a scrap to avoid beginning the following campaign in the second tier. Those privy to the club’s financial projections believe they should be operating self-sufficiently from next term but they are aware that slipping from the top flight would be costly and want to ensure that does not happen.

But first Hearts want to focus all attention on Hampden, ­giving Locke and Murray the opportunity to enhance their own coaching CVs before stepping back into the shadows.

Hearts said yesterday that they will give Fraser Mullen every chance of making the final despite the right-back suffering a bad ankle injury on Sunday.

The teenager limped off in the first half of the goalless Edinburgh derby after putting in a strong sliding tackle on Hibernian winger Matt Done. Interim manager Gary Locke told Hearts TV: “He’s got a bad one. We’ll see how he responds to treatment.

“I’m hopeful that he’ll be okay but he is in the hands of the physios at the moment.

“If they can work their magic then hopefully he will be in contention but it’s still too early to say at the moment.”

Hearts already have defenders Danny Grainger (knee), Jamie Hamill (knee) and Marius Zaliukas (ankle) on the injury list, but Darren Barr will return from suspension to join the squad to face St Mirren on Sunday.

Brad McKay, another 19-year-old, replaced Mullen to make his Hearts debut at Easter Road on Sunday.