Sean Clare is the latest piece in Hearts’ league-topping jigsaw, according to the man who signed him.
The former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder became the club’s 18th and newest arrival when he put pen to paper this week, bolstering manager Craig Levein’s options even further.
Claiming that he has now amassed a squad that is as strong as any he has had during his two managerial stints at the capital club, Ladbrokes SPFL Manager of the Month Levein says the 22-year-old will only galvanise things.
“I would say in terms of strength in depth it’s the strongest,” he said of the men who have now pieced together ten-game unbeaten start to the season to book a place in the quarter-final of the League Cup and build a five-point lead at the top of the Premiership standings. “We’ve had a lot of good players in my time here at Hearts and some of the ones we have just are maybe not quite at that level yet but I think they might get there. But the squad? Absolutely.
“We’ve set off at a good pace and it’s a question of whether we keep that going. That’s why I think having this strong squad, having boys like Sean Clare in the group, bringing Demi Mitchell and Steven Naismith back, these are all assets for what is going to be a long haul. If you don’t have a strong squad the manager’s job is a lot more about cajoling and making sure everyone is at it for every single match but if you have competition for places they just turn round and look at the bench and think, ‘I had better get my finger out’.
“The team is playing and working hard and also the players who are on the fringes have kept their focus and kept everybody on their toes. The squad, without doubt, is far more competitive than it was last season. I was looking at the team for the weekend and, even on the back of us winning five [Premiership] games, I have three or four options and I’m looking and thinking, ‘I don’t know which one would be best.’”
The arrival of Clare also gives him flexibility in team shape. “I see him as a player who can play in a four-man midfield because of his athleticism,” said Levein. “At times, it would be good to play with four in midfield and two out-and-out strikers. We’ve done that at home a few times. He can cover the ground and has the technical ability to play centrally or out wide.
“It just brings another strength to the team. We don’t have a player as mobile as him, someone with that pace, power, size and strength. All of those things make me feel good about having him.”
Linked with several sides in England, while Clare still needs to get himself up to speed, Levein believes the fact they were able to tie him up on a three-year deal will prove a astute investment.
“He’s just really good. He was at Sheffield Wednesday, his contract was up and he decided he was leaving,” said Levein.
“He was going to one of a number of Championship or even Premier League clubs who were interested and the idea was that we would then take him on loan. Because obviously his wages would be way beyond what we can afford.
“But one or two things happened with clubs he thought he would sign for, he had an injury, had to get a foot operation in March – and people had already signed their players just when he was getting fit. So the deal changed from us getting him on loan to whether we could get him permanently.
“What has been good for us is that, for him to go from Sheffield Wednesday to another Championship club or a Premier League club in England, if they don’t agree on a fee, it would go to a tribunal and it could be set as high as seven figures.
“But cross-border compensation is more straightforward, black and white. They’re a category two club, we’re a category two club, and it’s 60,000 Euros for every year he was at Sheffield Wednesday and he’s been there two-and-a-half years. So, the question then became could we find 150,000 Euros to invest in a player we would normally not be able to sign.
“For me, it’s a good investment. The bonus is that he’s ours. The way the cards have fallen, it’s worked out particularly well for us.”