PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: FIFTH
LAST SEASON: 6th, 51pts
NOTABLE INS: Craig Halkett (Livingston), Steven Naismith (Norwich City, loan made permanent), Jamie Walker (Wigan Athletic), Conor Washington (Sheffield United)
NOTABLE OUTS: Arnaud Djoum (Al-Raed), Ryan Edwards (Burton Albion), Marcus Godinho (FSV Zwickau), Conor Sammon (Falkirk), David Vanecek (Puskas Akademia), Daniel Baur (Bonnyrigg Rose Athletic, loan), Alex Petkov (Clyde, loan), Demi Mitchell (Manchester United, end of loan), Conor Shaughnessy (Leeds United, end of loan), Aaron Hughes (retired), Maluary Martin
LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Zlamal, M.Smith, Souttar, Berra,
It's easy to forget that at the end of October 2018 Hearts were top of the league. They had twenty-six points, four more than Celtic (who had a game in hand). That was one more point than they scored in the remaining twenty-seven league games. They won only twice after the first day of February.
That's not a small sample size. It's certainly large enough to put a manager in trouble. Craig Levein's saving grace was a run to the Scottish Cup Final...though he was fortunate to avoid Premiership opposition until the showpiece itself. Then the Jambos surprised many by giving Celtic a proper fight before succumbing 2-1. Was that a blip, or a sign of what Hearts are truly capable of?
The late autumn collapse coincided with a spate of injuries that left the team often looking leaderless. Christophe Berra and Steven Naismith may be past their best but their experience was crucial. When both went down, no-one filled the gap. The loss of John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu for long periods was also crucial. But that excuse doesn't wash for their torrid League Cup performances, where the Jambos toiled against Stenhousemuir and East Fife and supporters started to make their exasperation clear.
It's not like Levein had a small squad. He filled gaps not with the talented youngsters that have been knocking on the first team's door but with other signings. Too many of these didn't look up to it. Perhaps the manager has learned his lesson, letting several players go this summer and adding only three. Expect left-back Aaron Hickey - who impressed after his unexpected Hampden start - midfielder Harry Cochrane and skilful wideman Anthony McDonald to see a lot more action this year.
Naismith is back to guide them; his permanent move was delayed till the start of August because he would have forfeited a month's salary at his former club if he signed with someone else sooner than that. His nous and leadership are critical. He also seems to bring the best out of Ikpeazu, who at his best is astonishingly strong, as good with his back to goal as anyone in this league since Chris Sutton and with a decent turn of pace too. His form in July was honking though and even at his best he did only score eight goals last time out. Hearts need him to make double figures this campaign and damage plenty of opposing defenders in the process.
There's still canny veteran Steven Maclean, and one of the new boys is Northern Irish international striker Conor Washington, a busy player who has spent most of the last four years coming off English Championship benches. That's decent depth, so much so that another decent young player, Aidan Keena, will surely be loaned out again.
Crucially, the club also brought back Jamie Walker. Often Levein was criticized for playing hoofball, which was harsh mainly because it wasn't that Hearts always looked to go long, just that too often they only looked dangerous when they did so. Expect Walker's presence to alter that. The midfielder is expert at finding space between the lines, a skill that the squad lacked as a whole last season. Having him and Naismith playing off Ikpeazu should in theory work really well.
Central midfield is more of an issue with Arnaud Djoum having moved on and Peter Haring struggling with a chronic pelvic injury. The attack-minded Sean Clare has played in a deeper role in the League Cup games but doesn't do the defensive side well enough . In addition to Cochrane, Andy Irving is another young player fighting for a place in the team, while amongst the older players Olly Lee has been told he can go and Oliver Bozanic failed to impress last season. If there is to be another new signing, it'll be in this area.
There has already been one in the centre of defence where Craig Halkett, who shone for Livingston last season, will hopefully inherit Berra's mantle; the skipper too often runs out of legs in the second half these days and a partnership of Halkett and Souttar is likely going forward. Berra could always be deployed in a back three; Levein has plenty of options available in wide areas if he wishes to to play with wing-backs or a back four.
Hickey, still only 17, will compete with another teenager, Bobby Burns, and newcomer Aidy White for the left-back slot. Flying winger Jake Mulraney was one of the few squad members to enhance his reputation after Christmas and could also be used as a wing-back. Fellow widemen Dario Zanatta and Anthony McDonald impressed in Championship loans last season and could make the step up. Michael Smith could be right-back, right wing-back, on the right of a back three or a solid defensive midfielder. Callumn Morrison played right wing-back for much of last season too. The question is whether this is a case of quantity over quality, and whether Levein - and the Hearts fans - have enough patience to stick with the youths.
The ingredients appear to be there though. And it shouldn't take a gourmet chef to cook up something decent. Too often last year Hearts served up mediocre fare. If they can't make the step up to haut cuisine then Levein will be back under pressure very quickly.
THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Colin Doyle, Kevin Silva, Zdenek Zlamal
Defenders: Christophe Berra, Jamie Brandon, Bobby Burns, Clevid Dikamona, Ben Garuccio, Craig Halkett, Chris Hamilton, Aaron Hickey, Cammy Logan, Michael Smith, John Souttar, Aidy White
Midfielders: Oliver Bozanic, Sean Clare, Harry Cochrane, Peter Haring, Andy Irving, Olly Lee, Anthony McDonald, Lewis Moore, Callumn Morrison, Jake Mulraney, Connor Smith, Jamie Walker, Craig Wighton, Dario Zanatta
Forwards: Rory Currie, Ewan Henderson, Uche Ikpeazu, Aidan Keena, Steven Maclean, Leeroy Makovora, Steven Naismith, Connor Washington
THE BEST XI?
Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.