St Mirren v Hearts: Lee Wallace back as Hearts bid to maintain momentum

The transfer window might not open for another three days, but Hearts will feel as though they are welcoming a new player into the fold when Lee Wallace re-joins the first-team squad for tonight's Scottish Premier League fixture at St Mirren.

The left-back's progress has surprised as well as delighted manager Jim Jefferies, with Wallace not having played since damaging knee ligaments while representing Scotland against Liechtenstein in September.

The injury saw Hearts launch a bid to win compensation from the Scottish Football Association, amid fears that the player might not play again this season.

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This bleak prognosis was later revised, but few expected Wallace to play again this year. In being included in tonight's squad for the trip to New St Mirren Park, the 23-year-old is well ahead of schedule.

Jefferies would have preferred to have given Wallace a few bounce games in which to regain his sharpness, but the manager yesterday applauded the player's appetite for the fray. He also paid tribute to the spirit at Hearts at present, where the desire to hold on to places in a winning team has led to ultra-competitive training sessions. Wallace has reaped the benefits of these in-house mini-games and has put himself back in contention much quicker than expected.

Jefferies explained that he had been "catching the eye" in training and has never looked out of place, despite the lack of competitive match practice.

With Andrew Driver, another long-term injury victim, also due back early in the new year, the meeting Jefferies expects to have with owner Vladimir Romanov to discuss transfer window strategy could be a short one.

Romanov need only point to the return of Wallace and Driver, while also noting Hearts' success this season without them.

There is little which need fixed, with Wallace required to set his sights on dislodging Ruben Palazuelos from the first-team. The Spaniard's performances in what is, for him, an unfamiliar full-back position have made him one of the standouts for Hearts during their excellent run of form since October.

"He (Wallace] has trained for the last two to three weeks and looks really strong," said Jefferies yesterday. "The unfortunate thing is that the weather has put paid to games. But he has looked so good and is such a naturally fit boy that he is in the squad.

"I didn't expect him to be back this year," added Jefferies. "OK, he has not had any games, but he has been training. I can tell you that now we're going so well, the tempo at training has been unbelievable.Everyone is on a high and buzzing and that's sometimes a better judge than putting him in a closed doors game.

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"The one thing about Lee is that he is a left back, but he can play in a wide position if you need to change things, and he can play at centre back. That's always handy to have. He is definitely quality. To have him available is terrific. Ruben Palazuelos has been playing so well, but it's maybe driving Ruben knowing that Lee is on his way back."

It might be too much to expect Wallace to step straight back into the team, but with Rudi Skacel struggling with a calf injury Jefferies could decide to push Palazuelos into midfield, thereby freeing up the left-back slot. The manager expressed the hope that Skacel, who scored a hat-trick when the teams last met, will have recovered in time for tonight's game, which hosts St Mirren are confident will go ahead.

Jefferies called on his side to deliver another professional performance of the type which saw Motherwell beaten at Fir Park earlier this month. He knows that gathering wins from such difficult away fixtures is a necessity if Rangers and Celtic are to be kept within sight.

"If you look back to 98 and the points we picked up, while we played great in some games against the Old Firm the points total (collected against them] was not great," he reflected, looking back at the season when as well as winning the Scottish Cup, Hearts also finished third in the league. "Where we did all the damage was against the rest of the teams. That's the bit you have to get right first. That keeps you in contention for the top end of the table."

Jefferies stressed that it was up to the coaching staff to make sure the players were focused on the task in hand, with Hibernian set to visit Tynecastle on Saturday in an eagerly anticipated clash. However, he did allow himself to look back. "Hearts are not going to win every game, but we know that," he said. "We might go on a great run. I remember at Berwick Rangers we went 22 games (without defeat]. That would be nice."

Unbeaten now in seven matches, Hearts are beginning to look like a team who have forgotten how to lose.

• Provisional squad: Kello, Barr, Bouzid, Zaliukas, Stevenson, Palazuelos, Templeton, Elliot, Elliott, Balogh, Kyle, Jonsson, Mrowiec, C Thomson, Skacel, Novikovas, Wallace.