And the worst criticism a Hearts fan could possibly level at a striker who’s a potential signing target...
“Would rather have Conor Sammon.”
Those were just three from many negative reactions on social media to yesterday’s news regarding Steven MacLean. It’s safe to say the Gorgie masses are not enthused by the reports linking their club with a move for St Johnstone striker.
Age is the number one concern. MacLean will turn 36 just three weeks into the new season. Any prospective signing over the age of 30 causes worry unless they’re coming from a much higher standard of football. MacLean would be arriving from the bottom half of the Ladbrokes Premiership. Furthermore, while he’ll likely start most games between now and the end of the season due to an injury crisis in the Perth side’s attacking corps, he’s slipped down the pecking order a little in recent months after team-mate Chris Kane finally began to show glimpses of his potential.
The goalscoring hero of the 2014 Scottish Cup final has yet to find the back of the net in 2018, leaving him on five goals for the campaign overall. Oddly, this won’t actually be his lowest scoring season at McDiarmid Park as he suffered through a barren, though admittedly injury interrupted, 2014/15 season where he found the back of the net three times in 28 games.
The good news is that goals have always been a bonus of MacLean’s game and not reflective of his true worth. The guy is a scrapper in attack. He’s got a very slender build for such an experienced forward, yet is deceptively strong when he backs into a defender. In games where his team is on top he is the link between midfield and attack. In matches where the team is forced to defend, he can hold the ball up and take pressure off the defence in spite of his athletic limitations.
It seems like damning with faint praise, but at his best (while chipping in double figures in goals most seasons) MacLean was one of the most underappreciated strikers in Scottish football. He would have improved any of 10 other squads in the league, and even Celtic that year Leigh Griffiths was left to do it on his own. It wasn’t just that he was good at picking up space in the opposing third and enabling promising attacks to go through him, it was that he was better than just about anyone else at doing so. It’s even in evidence this season. He’s completed 66.67 per cent of his passes to the final third, much better than his possible new team-mate, Kyle Lafferty (48.33 per cent).
But will he still have that capability next campaign? There’s little doubt his performances have dipped this season, but then you could literally say the same about anyone in the St Johnstone squad, with the exception of Kane. There’s been a malaise around McDiarmid Park and it’s affected important players throughout the side.
He’s still had a few good performances, particularly in the two draws St Johnstone managed to claim at Celtic Park, with MacLean netting in the first one. He’s got what basketball analysts would call “an old man’s game”. His career in the Ladbrokes Premiership hasn’t been built on speed and brute force, so losing what little he had isn’t as much of an issue.
The key to this deal will be in the detail. A two-year contract has been mooted. If Craig Levein envisions the player as the third-choice striker in a largely one-striker system, or fourth choice in a 4-4-2/3-5-2, then this could become a perfectly passable piece of business.
On the other hand, if they’re looking for someone to lead the line for 24 months then this could be another signing disaster for the Tynecastle club. The squad badly needs pace in attack. It’s almost utterly void of it when David Milinkovic isn’t in the team and there is no guarantees the winger, on loan from Genoa, is going to be here next season. Danny Amankwaa was advertised as a speedy forward player, but a mixture of fitness and confidence problems mean fans have yet to see much evidence of it.
The word coming out of Tynecastle is that the driving motivation behind the deal is to recruit an experienced, high character striker to help mentor younger players. In the many responses to the news on Twitter, one supporter questioned the need for another such figurehead with Jon Daly and Andy Kirk already at the club, saying they were better strikers during their respective careers. Daly, you could argue, but MacLean played consistently at a higher level for longer than Kirk. And while Daly may not have been the quickest or most technical of footballers in his career, he at least had height and aerial prowess, something which his managers used to their advantage. MacLean is someone who squeezed every single drop out of his potential. He played the game consistently well with his head. That’s exactly the type of professional you want imparting wisdom onto young players.
Supporters are concerned about this deal, and perhaps rightfully so. But, if this goes through, this is the first signing of around ten to be made ahead of next season. The best advice would be to shelve that worry and wait and see what comes next. If Hearts begin the next league campaign with MacLean as the main back-up to Lafferty, then perhaps they should be concerned. But if the plan is to have him act as a mentor while providing a different option off the bench and occasionally starting, then that’s a role MacLean could easily fulfil in a Hearts shirt for the 2018/19 season.