Miguel Pallardo’s drop in form this season is a lesson to Rangers, and potentially Hibs, Falkirk or Raith Rovers, about the difficulties of playing at a higher level every week, writes Craig Fowler
When it came time to dish out Player of the Year accolades for last season’s runaway Scottish Championship winners, the only reason Spaniard Miguel Pallardo didn’t sweep the Hearts’ award ceremony was because he’d only arrived in October and didn’t start playing regularly until the following month.
After establishing himself in the side he was Hearts’ most consistent player, if not their best. The supporters loved him. He played with technique and poise you’d expect from anyone who has years of experience playing in La Liga, coupled with a real tenacity and willingness to mix it up with the opposition.
The Championship was a walk in the park for him. He really was a cut above. Of Hearts’ three leading central midfielders - Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis being the other two - he seemed most equipped to deal with the step up to the Premiership.
Instead, he’s found himself marginalised, out of the first team picture and will be released in the summer. He’s had his moments, most notably an excellent performance in the highly-charged 1-0 Scottish Cup victory over Aberdeen, but the consistent level of excellence has been lacking. His play hasn’t been bad over the piece, it’s just not justified another year on his contract, especially not for someone who’ll turn 30 a month into next season.
Hearts are wanting to go to the next level, to overtake Aberdeen and be the club pushing Celtic and, likely, Rangers for the top. Pallardo has shown this season he’s not quite at that standard. The biggest problem has been his struggle to adapt to the heightened pace and quickness of the top flight. Put simply, he’s just too slow. He’d often get caught on the wrong side of opposing attackers and be forced to bring them down.
Against bottom six sides in the Premiership it wasn’t too much of a problem, but in the bigger matches he hasn’t got to grips with the pace of the game. Of his five bookings in 19 appearances this campaign, three have come against Aberdeen, one at Motherwell in a tough 2-2 draw and the other at Easter Road in a frenetic cup clash. In hindsight, we perhaps should have seen this coming. Two of his three bookings last season came against Hibs and Rangers, while two of his worst performances in a Hearts jersey came in defeats at Ibrox and Easter Road. Though few had the foresight to predict such a dip in form because these issues were masked by the rest of his game.
Some people may not realise this, but the Hearts team as it is now is quite different to the one that stormed to the second tier crown. Robbie Neilson and Craig Levein knew that they needed to strengthen and they haven’t been afraid of doing so, with key players from last season, like Gomis and Pallardo, pushed to the fringes, while others - Adam Eckersley, Kevin McHattie, James Keatings - were just flat out released.
Because of their performances in the cup, everyone assumes both Rangers and Hibs, as it stands, are two sides readily equipped to tackle the top flight next season: Rangers for the title and Hibs for the top six, should they make it out of the play-offs. While that’s likely to be where each side would end up (should Hibs earn promotion), it won’t be achieved without a number of reinforcements coming in for each team, with a couple of current day fan favourites likely to ‘do a Pallardo’ and perform below expectations built on their form in the Championship.
In the same way Pallardo’s lack of quickness became a problem, so too will some of the deficiencies among players in the Rangers squad. The brilliant thing about football is that it’s almost impossible to predict exactly what will be a problem until next season gets going. Everyone assumes James Tavernier’s defensive weaknesses are going to be exposed once he makes the step up. However, he was terrific defensively in the cup semi-final against Celtic, and if he can do it against the champions then surely he can do it against anyone? On the other hand, it was a one-off game and he’s a player brimming with confidence having tore up second tier opponents all season. Without having so many easy games to boost his ego, will he remain the same player? The same question can be applied to Rob Kiernan, who looked shaky in defence but has become increasingly composed as the season has gone on, striker Martyn Waghorn, who may struggle to reach the same scoring heights without as many chances, or Jason Holt, who’ll be going against midfielders more equipped, both physically and mentally, to close him down. We won’t know for certain until it happens.
As for Pallardo, he’ll still be remembered fondly by the Hearts support for some flawless displays which contributed greatly to the club returning to the top flight at the first time of asking - and also for THAT goal against Alloa.