Make-or-break time for out-of-contract Hearts stars

HEARTS' out-of-contract players will make or break their futures during the final five matches of the season as the club pursues a European place, although manager Jim Jefferies has hinted for the first time that captain Michael Stewart could leave Tynecastle on freedom of contract.

Jefferies today implored those whose contracts are close to expiring – namely Stewart, Larry Kingston, Christian Nade and Marian Kello – to use the post-split fixtures to justify their case for an extension. Jose Goncalves is also out of contract in June but has already refused a new deal.

The manager added that final decisions on contract renewals will not be taken until he has assessed players' performances during the final five games. He is determined to judge individuals on how they fare in high-pressure situations against Scotland's best sides.

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The future for Stewart, however, is unclear as the midfielder deliberates over his next move.

"Michael is out of contract. He might want to move on, he might have offers," explained Jefferies. "I think he said himself that he'll wait to see what pans out. Once he gets back fit and playing we'll take it from there.

"It's not just about the club wanting to keep players. They might have offers coming in and other things they want to consider. They have an opportunity to move on when they are out of contract. It's not all down to whether you want them or not.

"There are a lot of factors to discuss. We have five games to assess everything and nothing is cast in stone yet.

"Because of the options up front I brought Nade back in on Saturday. He hadn't figured recently so that was a chance for him.

"We have tough games coming up, games where we want to be competing so they will be a good marker because they will be against all the clubs in the top half of the table.

"I'm not getting ahead of myself because there are many things to think about. Kingston has certainly shown he is a good player so we'll see how it goes. He's enjoying it so we'll let him enjoy it and look at things at the end of the season.

"We want to see these games, five hard games, because that can tell you a lot about players if they show the hunger and desire. The pressure is off them regarding the top six. These are the games where they can show they aren't switched off."