ROBBIE Neilson hopes to agree a new contract with centre-half Jordan McGhee soon – but other Tynecastle players could have to wait until the club knows which division it will be playing in next season.
Bringing in a striker, which he achieved yesterday with the loan signing of Género Zeefuik, was Neilson’s priority for this window, and he is also eager to hold on to his current stars. But, while the promotion picture is highly promising given the club’s 13-point lead at the top of the Championship, the club are taking nothing for granted, and will only finalise Neilson’s budget once the title race has been decided one way or another.
“We’re still talking to Jordan and we’re not that far away,” Neilson said yesterday. “I’ve spoken to players as individuals, but not their representatives. We haven’t won the league yet, we don’t know what league we’ll be in, so we also aren’t aware of our budget yet.
“We don’t know whether guys like [Miguel] Pallardo will want to stay even if we don’t get promoted. We’ll need to wait and see. Until we know what division we’ll be in next season we can’t commit to the older ones.”
Torquay’s teenage defender Jake Hutchings is back on trial with Hearts after an initial spell last year was ended by injury but, even if he signs, he will not be in the senior squad for some time. Neilson’s concern at present is getting his three injured strikers back on first-team duty, and he expects Osman Sow and Dale Carrick to be available for next Friday’s league match against Rangers at Ibrox, with Soufian El Hassnaoui to follow. Even so, with James Keatings and Gary Oliver the only two front men available to him before yesterday, he was convinced that he needed to strengthen that department of the team. “Bringing in a striker is our main focus,” he said before the signing of Zeefuik was announced. “We’ve had injuries with our attackers this season, with the likes of Carrick, Sow and El Hassnaoui all being affected.
“We need some reinforcements. For the last five or six weeks we’ve been struggling a bit in the striking department with numbers. We’ve approached strikers and we’ve done a lot of homework on them. We spoke to people who have coached them and played in the same dressing room as them and it’s important that we keep the spirit in the team.
“We’ve made contact with people that we trust, and we’re acting on those that we think would fit the bill. The main characteristic we look for is the ability to work hard. They have to want to do well, be ambitious and be a good type around the dressing room. Be a team player and not think it’s all about them.”
Neilson hopes the arrival of Zeefuik will boost Hearts’ bid to win the Championshp title.
He said: “Genero gives us a different option up front, is really strong, physical and can hold the ball up and link well with others.
“He has a good pedigree having played at some big clubs in Holland and has scored a lot of goals for his country at Under-21 level. He will be a threat for us and a good option in attack.
“He will allow us to get back to playing two up front again if we want which we haven’t been able to do with the injuries we have had.”
Meanwhile, McGhee – still only 18 – has made rapid progress, and Neilson is sure he has the ability to play in England. For now, the coach thinks the defender is better off staying in Scotland.
“Jordan realises that himself. He’s not quite ready to play in England yet. As a centre-half he still has to develop quite a bit both physically and mentally.
“He’s probably a year or two away from going down south. If Jordan keeps progressing the way he is, he’ll go down to England eventually.
“He has played 40-odd games and I want him to stay and play over 100 matches for Hearts. He’ll be capable of taking that step to England in a year or two.”
Jason Holt, by contrast, may be leaving Tynecastle sooner. The midfielder, who turns 22 next month, has fallen down the pecking order behind Pallardo, Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben. Neilson added:“He has found it frustrating as he can’t get in the team. He should be playing somewhere, whether that be with Hearts or wherever. We’ll have a meeting soon and chat about what we both want.”
Hearts visit Dumbarton tomorrow aiming to extend their unbeaten league run to 20 matches. Neilson has been impressed by the mental strength they have shown, a quality that was certainly required in last week’s Edinburgh derby, when they fought back from a goal down to claim a 1-1 draw against a much-improved Hibs team.
“I was pleased with the way we got back into the game after the first 30 minutes, because I thought we started poorly and we didn’t do the things we were working on,” Neilson said. “Once we got ourselves back into it I thought we were pretty steady until the last 15 minutes. Hibs were desperate for the win because they needed it and they started going gung-ho – and it can be difficult after that. We defended really well and the character was really good. It’s another point.”