In a situation that sums up the club’s injury-blighted season, Craig Levein has revealed that he is struggling to fill the bench for tomorrow’s final league fixture, away to Kilmarnock.
The Hearts boss will take his men to Rugby Park, wrapping up a campaign dogged by stadium issues, managerial upheaval and an unrelenting saga of Achilles tears, turned ankles, hamstrings tweaks and knee knocks.
Reading through a list of 41 names – 22 professionals and 19 ground staff – Levein lamented the fact that only 15 players are fit and available to play, of which three are goalkeepers, although top scorer Kyle Lafferty could bolster numbers if he decides he can cope with the pain and nurse his injured shoulder through another 90 minutes.
Steven Naismith, Michael Smith and Christophe Berra are all suspended and with fellow midweek stars, Demetri Mitchell, Danny Amankwaa and Joaquim Adao the latest to pick up knocks, Levein is looking at piecing together a makeshift team, with very little back-up.
“In all my time, I’ve never known anything like it,” he said, admitting that if it wasn’t the last game of term then he may have considered asking for a postponement. He added that the only thing that could have made it worse is if they had been tussling for a European place.
“It would have been a disaster. I am going to ask the league if we can get back our development players to at least go on the bench. I have even looked at the younger ones in the under-17s, guys who have turned 16, like Sean Ward. He has done really well in our 20s as an under-17 but he is on an academy contract. You can’t play unless you are on a professional contract. So I can’t do that.”
He is hoping that 19-goal Lafferty will be able to feature but said it would be up to the player to decide if he can play through the pain barrier, after landing heavily on his shoulder in Wednesday’s win over Hibs and sustaining some ligament damage.
Lafferty is aiming to be the first Hearts player since John Robertson in 1991-92 to score 20 goals in a season. The striker had initially indicated that he would have to quit against Hibs but decided to stay on and did not shy away from challenges.
“The adrenaline lasts for a while and even after the game it can last a couple of hours, Levein said. “It is only when you come in the next day, even the day after, that you feel the real effects of it.
“He is quite sore this morning. But he is desperate to play because he is going for 20 goals. He has a wee sling and it will be his determination more than anything else [that will decide if he plays]. I don’t think he can make it worse. It will be whether he can handle the pain.
“But that carrot of 20 goals is something that is in his head and he wants to achieve that.
“Since Robbo, the highest goalscorer was Rudi Skacel on 18 so he has already surpassed that. It’s quite a significant achievement. To get to 20 is a significant thing. He has scored some brilliant goals this year, he really has. The one the other night was sensational. A different type of goal but it was sensational, the way he took it. And he is a big-game player. He scores in big games. I am just keeping my fingers crossed that there aren’t any suitors in the summer and he is still with us.”