When Craig Levein was Scotland manager Jon McLaughlin wasn’t even on his radar. But now there is no overlooking the form of the Tynecastle goalkeeper.
Named in the national squad for the upcoming friendlies against Costa Rica and Hungary, the 30-year-old has been a vital contributor to the Hearts cause this term and while his club boss is delighted for him on a personal level, he knows that the call-up will make it even tougher to retain his services beyond the end of the season.
“He was at Burton and he had been at Bradford but, when you look at it, we had Craig Gordon and Allan McGregor and David Marshall, all playing at higher levels. That was probably why he wasn’t involved,” explains Levein of McLaughlin’s absence from the national side until now.
“I didn’t know [about McLaughlin] at that time. But we had an abundance of goalkeepers and I think Craig Gordon’s injury has accelerated his opportunity.”
It is one that he believes the Edinburgh-born player is ready to make the most of, should he be given game time in either of Scotland’s two friendly matches this month.
“It’s been a good season for Jon,” Levein added. “He had an injury and missed out on a few things in the summer. So, quite late on, we managed to do a deal to bring him here and his remit was to bring a calmness to the team and use his experience to help us and those two things he has done exceedingly well. And he has done even more than that. But for him to get into the Scotland squad, that wasn’t something that he and I discussed. I am pleased for him because he is a lovely guy but it makes it more likely that other teams will be attracted.”
Hearts have offered to extend his one-year deal but, with other suitors, Levein knows he may decide to move on. Linked with both McGregor and Celtic loanee Scott Bain as possible replacements, he understands McLaughlin’s stance but cannot afford to wait forever as he weighs up alternatives.
“I have told Jon I want to keep him and told him what we can afford. If I find anyone else who I feel I want then I have told him I will tell him ‘we have an opportunity to do this, do you want to stay?’ That is the only way I can do it. He says he would like to stay but he has to look at his options and when it comes to senior players, and Jon is over 30 now, he has to think about his family and financial security going forward. Those become important things and if there are teams out there who can pay three or four times what we can afford to pay, what would you do? I hope he stays, but I don’t know.”
While he is still at the club, McLaughlin will aim to help Hearts finish in the top six. A period of defensive stability had given the team a solid foundation to build on but they have now gone five games without a clean sheet, which is why Levein is hopeful his captain Christophe Berra will be able to nurse his ankle through another 90 minutes, against Partick Thistle tomorrow, before getting the opportunity to rest it during the international break. “He is a warrior,” siad the manager. “He’s played the last two games with it, taking injections. It’s nothing serious. It’s irritating and it’s sore. But he’s had a scan and it was pretty much what we thought so the upside of him not getting picked for Scotland is he will get time to rest and recover.”
In the wake of last week’s derby defeat by Hibernian, Berra claimed he might sit out this game, unwilling to take another painkilling injection. But his manager is not convinced. “He says that but he will want to play,” said Levein. “It’s his choice but I know what he is like. If you look in the dictionary, the definition of determination is Christophe Berra.”