Kyle Lafferty exit leaves big hole but Hearts have options

It was always likely to be a matter of when not if Kyle Lafferty departed Tynecastle to return to Rangers.

Kyle Lafferty applauds the travelling Hearts fans after the Betfred Cup win over Dunfermline on Saturday. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

As soon as the Glasgow club had made it clear they wanted him and the player had spelled out his desire to head back along the M8, all Hearts could really do was hold out for as much money as possible for the man they had recruited for nothing.

In the end they banked a six-figure sum for a striker who bagged more goals in a season than any Hearts player since John Robertson, but who had stressed to the Gorgie club’s hierarchy that his troubled finances and allegiance made the move his desired option.

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Manager Craig Levein had tried to play down the significance of Lafferty’s decision to throw his shirt to the fans on Saturday after the Betfred Cup win over Dunfermline, saying he did not believe it was a sure sign the Northern Irishman had played his last game for the Tynecastle club but now that Rangers have their man, the only unknown is if and how Hearts choose to replace him.

On the club website, chairwoman Ann Budge told the Hearts support that while she had “no desire to sell our players to other teams in the league, when a player has his mind fully set on moving, it is difficult to reach an alternative conclusion”.

But she added that the deal would “suit all parties” and “allow Craig to focus his efforts on finalising potential deals to add to his playing squad”.

The fact that the negotiations with Rangers became so drawn out was a cause for frustration but it has allowed the club to assess their forward options. They have brought in men who can fill the striking berths right now, while there are already plans in place to add to the front line in January, with a pre-contract deal struck with FC Teplice’s David Vanecek. With some extra money in the pot, one course of action would be to try to strike a deal that would bring that arrival date forward.

But, there is no obvious desperation. As the recruitment of Uche Ikpeazu, pictured, and Steven MacLean have bolstered the forward ranks already while Steven Naismith can also play in a more advanced role, especially as Arnaud Djoum is about ready to force his way back into the first team and can serve as the visionary in the middle of the park, freeing the Norwich City player to get up and sniff out goals. The Belgian is also a player who has shown he can get onto the scoresheet.

So while they may not have a 20-goals-a-season man in their midst, they may have a group of players who, between them, can produce even more.

Hearts also have options coming through the youth ranks. While Rory Currie is out on loan to East Fife and Euan Henderson is gaining experience at Montrose, Levein has been watching Aidan Keena.

Speaking last week about contingency plans, he said: “I am assessing whether Keena can take the step up. He has done quite well, last season and in pre-season, so we will see. I don’t want to mess about and bring somebody in for the sake of it so he has proved that he might be around and on the bench. That’s where the young boys get their opportunity from, either an injury or coming off the bench.”

The start to the season, sitting top of the Premiership table and into the Betfred Cup quarter-finals, offers hope that the current term will be less trying for the staff and fans than the previous one and, having worked so hard to bring in more experience, Levein will be wary of leaving himself open to having to rely on kids in the same way he did then. Which may mean he will be tempted to twist rather than stick. But things have been complicated by early season injuries at the back. Captain Christophe Berra is out for six months and Levein was already shopping for an experienced player he could bring in to fill the void. Then stand-in Aaron Hughes failed to make it through 90 minutes at the weekend, giving his manager cause to add a second centre-back to the wishlist.

On Tuesday they signed up Jimmy Dunne on a six-month loan from Burnley, and while that gives them a fresh option for this weekend’s trip to Kilmarnock as the capital side try to extend their unbeaten run to eight games, another defender will follow. Only time will tell if that will leave enough money to beef up the strikeforce as well. But, at least Hearts have had time to assess the options.