Hearts are determined to hit the ground running this term.
Admitting that the Gorgie side were ill-prepared for last season, on the pitch as well as off it, midfielder Don Cowie said it will be a fitter team that takes to the newly-laid Tynecastle turf next month.
“We weren’t fit enough. It wasn’t a demanding enough pre-season last year,” said Cowie. “That was just the manager’s preference. Ian [Cathro], maybe from the continental side, went for a different approach. But we’re fully aware what we’re going to get next week. It’s going to be tough and hard. But that’s all I’ve known throughout my career. It will be no surprise really. We’ve just got to get through it.
“The game’s evolving, it’s changing and people have different opinions. They maybe think of it as old school but it was just a case of running and working extremely hard. Ian is entitled to his opinion on the way he sees fit to have a pre-season. I just felt that it was definitely not as intense as I have experienced in my career.”
It left new manager Craig Levein playing catch-up when he came in and he is determined to address those fitness deficiencies when he welcomes his new-look squad back to training next week.
“I’ve no idea what we will be doing but we’ve been told by the sports scientists that we’ve got a programme and we’ve all been given it and told that if we abide by that, we’ll be fine when we come back. If not, you’ll be found out,” Cowie added.
The players report back on Thursday but Cowie has been working to be in the right shape on that first day.
“It is just a running programme with some strength work on the legs to keep them going as well,” he said. “After the season we were told to have just over two weeks of complete rest, play golf, walk, bike, do what you want to do but nothing too strenuous. Then for the last three weeks of the break we all had a programme which allows us to build up to next week.
“You don’t want to be playing catch-up. You don’t want to be going into pre-season and on the first couple of days get an injury as other people stamp their authority and get ahead of you in the queue. You need to make sure you are ready.”
The lack of intensity in last season’s build-up was an issue as the team tried to get up to the speed and physical demands of the Premiership and, as well as limiting their tactical options, it placed a strain on their bodies when interim boss Jon Daly and then new manager Levein attempted to crank things up.
“That’s what happened,” said Cowie. “He wanted to work us a bit harder but you get a couple of injuries because it’s a different regime, a different intensity of training. Then he has to come off the gas a wee bit because he realises that you can’t do it or we will have no team because of the injuries. It’s a vicious circle. There is no excuse now. We’ve got a full pre-season.”
With 31 players signed in the past four transfer windows, with one or two more anticipated before the start of this one, Cowie says there is a different feel to this summer’s recruitment drive, claiming it smacks of positivity rather than panic.
“I must be nearly the longest serving player and I’ve only been here two and a half years!” he said. “It’s been tough, there have been a lot of changes but it feels a bit different now. There is more stability. The manager has been in the game a long time, he knows what he wants and he’s got the players in early. The manager needed to get his own players into the club. It gives us a real opportunity and time to get it right. We really need to get it right.” But for all the arrivals, the focus is still on departures, with striker Kyle Lafferty, pictured, linked with a move away from the club as suitors circle. Cowie hopes that interest comes to nothing and that the club keep hold of the goal getter and fellow forward Steven Naismith.
“Kyle became a very important member of the team and was a big character in the dressing room,” added the midfielder. “His goals helped us enormously. The fact he was one away from the 20, which hadn’t been done for a long time, shows how much we relied on him. So, it doesn’t surprise me that there have been teams interested in him but it would be great if we could keep him.
“It would be great if Naisy could come back, too. I know it was a period he really enjoyed and I think he is at a stage in his career where he just wants to play football and enjoy it. I’m sure he could get more lucrative offers but I got the vibe that he would like to come back.”