Could Hearts be the SPL's Surprise Package this Season?
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When it comes to the Scottish Premier League, three is the magic number. With Rangers back to their best and Celtic in good form, the top two spots are firmly locked down. For everyone else, third place is as good as it gets. Aberdeen are the obvious choice to secure that coveted place in the shadow of the Old Firm, but they would do well to keep a close eye on the rear-view mirror. Lurking behind, like a Mustang speeding up the A90 with headlights dimmed and engine muffled, is Heart of Midlothian.
A productive summer
Hearts pulled up no trees in the past three seasons, quietly making the top six split without posing a threat to the top three. A run to last season’s Scottish Cup final demonstrated the Jambos’ potential, but it is this summer’s transfer dealings which show Hearts are ready to leave mid-table mediocrity behind and launch a firm push for that fabled European spot. Former Stoke and Aston Villa midfielder Greg Whelan and Connor Washington, boh signed from Sheffield United, are two quality signings with bags of experience in the English game, while Craig Halkett and Steven Naismith are proven in Scotland.
More importantly, the club entered into an informal partnership with Manchester City. Hearts can help City bring players into Europe by circumventing visa requirements, whilst preparing youngsters for the rigours in the Premier League with a brief spell in the trenches of Scottish football. The first player to arrive through this arrangement is Ryotaro Meshino, a livewire Japanese midfielder who joined City for a seven-figure fee after scoring for fun in the J League.
Hearts could never pay for Meshino themselves, unless they wanted to re-mortgage Tynecastle or sell their naming rights and become Mr. Kipling Jam Tarts of Midlothian. But their relationship with Manchester City allows them to sign players who would normally be expected to pitch up at Parkhead or Ibrox.
The squad is also bolstered by a thriving youth set up. Hearts started three teenagers in their last game. One of those, 17-year-old full-back Aaron Hickey, is the youngest player to appear in a Scottish Cup final and is on Manchester City’s radar. That informal relationship could mean serious cash for the Jambos.
The perfect opportunity
Hearts can benefit from floundering opposition this season, with other third-place competitors in flux. Current bronze medalists, Kilmarnock, aren’t at their best as they acclimatise to a new style of play under Angelo Alessio. The likes of Hibernian and Motherwell are weaker than in previous years, and despite a good start from Livingston, it’s doubtful their squad is strong enough to maintain a serious challenge.
It won’t be easy for Hearts to breach the top three. Manager Craig Levein must establish a consistent line-up and recapture the form that brought Hearts to the Scottish Cup Final. Despite a poor start, with two points from the first four games, once the new signings settle in and the team melds into a cohesive unit, the Edinburgh outfit will be in the perfect position to climb the table. Even those fans calling for Levein’s head acknowledge the current squad's sheer ability.
Where’s it all heading?
Hearts can fiddle with loan signings and free transfers as they like, they still won’t be challenging the Old Firm any time soon. But one good season may be the catalyst to put Hearts on a level above their traditional rivals. Success breeds success and a few lucrative ties in European qualifying could set the moolah flowing. The club won’t need to pull off quite so much financial acrobatics to build a squad from loans and free transfers and will become one of the few Scottish clubs capable of shelling out transfer fees. City will be more likely to continue sending youngsters to a club competing in Europe, and additional funds would keep the academy churning out first-teamers.
It may only take one good season for Hearts to establish themselves as Scotland’s third force. The Edinburgh outfit may have been written off already, but don’t be surprised to see them at the other end of the table by the time May rolls around...