Now we’re in the Top Six, the Bottom Six starts to look interesting …
I`d be very surprised if there any Hearts fans out there who are less then delighted at the way the team – and club – have progressed in the last 8 months under the football guidance of Csaba Laszlo, who has shown remarkable man-management skills to transform the same players who drifted aimlessly last season. Messrs. Nade, Wallace, Elliott, Driver, Palazuelos and Stewart have all shown considerable improvement this season. Newcomers David Obua and Janos Balogh have justfied Csaba`s faith in them, and it could be argued that the loss of influential centre-half Christophe Berra to Wolves in January has hardly been noticed in terms of team results.
So while things look good for the run-in this season, let’s look to the future for a moment.
The SPL table shows 4 “groups” of teams. The Old Firm at the top (albeit in a modest sort of way) ? the 3 Euro chasers, proudly led by Hearts ?. the Top Six chasers (Hibs and Motherwell) ? and the 5 relegation battlers.
While we revel in a Top Six place and the serious prospect of finishing 3rd, I think that the relegation battle which will dominate the Bottom Six fixtures could actually play a significant part in shaping Hearts immediate future. The club which gets relegated will face a fairly bleak economic future, with the certainty that some of their better players will want to leave – the unlucky club will be most unlikely to turn down decent offers.
A similar economic reality may even hold true for the survivors too. Hearts already have Ian Black lined up from Inverness – so could the time be right to look at other players from those teams who could play at a slightly higher level ?
Surprisingly, it`s Falkirk who currently sit bottom of the SPL. I say “surprisingly”, because John Hughes` strategy last summer seemed sensible to me – namely, bring in some seasoned players to help “beef up” their young team and make them hard to beat. Messrs. McCann, Bullen, McNamara and Pressley (in January) were recruited, and for a while it looked like the plan would keep Falkirk above the danger zone. However the “dog eat dog” nature of the SPL this season has caused problems for teams at all levels , and Falkirk now face the real possibility of dropping out the SPL. Rumours of financial problem have already surfaced, so relegation would prompt a serious re-organisation within the club. They have several good players in my opinion – Scott Arfield, Darren Barr, Steve Lovell and Carl Finnigan would all be candidates for a step up to a bigger club. Falkirk’s Youth Academy has a reputation for developing good football skills, and the Scotland U-17 and U-16 squads currently feature some of their boys. I would hope that Hearts are monitoring these boys, with a view to offering them a higher platform and salary, at a time when their current club will be looking to cut costs drastically.
At St. Mirren, Andy Dorman looks like another Paul Hartley to me – a guy with high energy who contributes goals from a forward midfield role. Meanwhile at Hamilton, youngsters McCarthy, Easton and McArthur have had great reviews.
It`s encouraging to hear Csaba Laszlo admit that he has a list of SPL players that he`s interested in. Hearts don`t have much money to splash on transfer fees, and they could never compete with English clubs or the Old Firm if it came to a bidding war – however they do pay good SPL wages, and the prospect of playing in Europe should interest most players. In addition, we can demonstrate how the careers Berra and Craig Gordon have recently moved to higher levels in England as a result of good performances at Hearts. So, I hope that Csaba can win Vladimir`s approval to try to sign 1 or 2 of these guys in the summer. Our strategy now is to develop young players to the point of being saleable assets, and the impending relegation of a club like Falkirk offers an opportunity to enhance Hearts` reputation as a great stepping stone for young ambitious talent. Seizing an opportunity like that would surely go a long way towards Hearts reaching what should be their next target – namely to become the “regular” 3rd club in Scotland.