Some people will tell you that Hearts underachieved this season, that they failed to command games and attack with the verve and authority that the assembled squad was capable of. You might reflect that’s an interesting assessment of a newly promoted team who were this close (*holds fingers the distance of a successful Dedryck Boyata clearance apart*) to not existing slightly more than two years ago, but hey, football fans are interesting people.
Neil Alexander – 8
Assessing Alexander’s season feels a lot like assessing the club’s season as a whole. It’s very easy to go with your first thoughts – to remember the decent shot-stopping but the shaky cross-claiming, the vocal presence but the occasional slowness out the blocks – and conclude that the Aul Da of this Hearts squad deserves a passing grade with “could do better” written underneath in a stern hand.
But consider the stats. The most clean sheets in the league, as well as the highest save ratio, least goals conceded and most first names of any keeper playing the full season other than Celtic’s Craig Gordon. This, again, in a newly promoted side.
Could another keeper have done a better job? Possibly, but that doesn’t make Alexander’s efforts this season not excellent.
Jack Hamilton played a few games and was fine. Kelby Mason played the Youth Cup Final and wasn’t.
Callum Paterson – 8
By some distance the most impressive athlete in the Hearts squad, Paterson continued his development into a fine, rampaging fullback, with an excellent array of running, crossing, goal scoring and referee-haranguing under his belt. Paterson plays in reality like Alan Hutton does in Gordon Strachan’s idealised fever dreams, and will hopefully soon oust the meandering embodiment of the Aston Villa spirit from the national team for good.
Unfortunately, this list of superlatives is probably why he’s going to be sold in the summer, and will spend next season bringing his equally buccaneering play and facial hair to that lower-Premiership/upper-Championship zone of the English league that might as well be renamed Scotland’s Level.
Alim Öztürk – 9
A slow start to the season for Scotland’s reigning Long Bangy champion, mostly due a slightly delayed recruitment of central defenders meaning he had play even while his internal organs were trying to escape his torso and wouldn’t take a wall of abdominal muscle for an answer.
Once he was fit enough to play normally, Östürk showed that becoming club captain had calmed most of the erratic moments of last season, whilst retaining his dominant aerial presence and confidence on the ball, and adding a pleasing air of vocal command. The bedrock of the Hearts defence and, at just 23 years old, hopefully a mainstay of the team for some years yet.
John Souttar – 8
A mid-season refugee from the tragic Tannadice Disaster, where thousands of supporters lost the will to carry on, Souttar cast off murmurings about a youth prospect that had lost his way and had already peaked to slot seamlessly beside Östürk as the clear best partner for the captain. A calm, ball-playing defender who performs with a maturity way beyond his 19 years, Souttar had older fans around Tynecastle wistfully recalling a young Craig Levein, and so wondering what Östürk would say in a preseason friendly to merit being punched in the face.
Igor Rossi – 7
Even after years of seeing the occasional specimen of the type flit in and out of our league, there’s still little to stir the heart of Scottish football fan than the signing of a Brazilian footballer. While no-one is likely to confuse Igor Rossi with Garrincha as he sticks to his task as a defence-first left back or dependable replacement centre half, he will occasionally do a wee shimmy to escape a closing attacker. Which, for a crowd forced to accept Jamie Hamill as a creative force for several years, is more than enough.
Juwon Oshaniwa – 4
During the final game of the season, we nearly reached Peak Juwon when the he attempted an overhead clearance and contrived to kick himself in the face. All it was missing to become a Vine that could stand in for his CV was if the ball had then somehow ricocheted into a goal. Either one. That’s the chaos factor that Juwon brings.
Oshaniwa is an object lesson in the need for expectation management. If you are sold as a World Cup defender who shackled Messi on the biggest stage then it’s probably best if you don’t play as if you have to Google “my legs – what they are and how they work” every three strides. Expecting greatness and receiving something rather less than average, it didn’t take long for the Hearts support in general to turn on the Nigerian international.
It’s a shame, because there’s definitely a talented player buried beneath all that dithering and misplaced crossing. Here’s hoping a full preseason and year’s integration can coax out some performances to match Oshaniwa’s infectious, positive personality.
Błażej Augustyn – 6
A brief stay for a decent, if erratic defender – Augustyn’s main contribution to the squad was to be so radge that Östürk had to calm down to accommodate him. He won headers, he had a great name, he leaves with thanks and appreciation.
Jordan McGhee – 5
Part of the problems Juwon Oshaniwa had in ingratiating himself to the Tynecastle crowd was the presence of a guid, Scottish laddie who had proven himself to be perfectly fine as a stand-in left back. But that’s really all Jordan McGhee has proven to be so far in his nascent career – perfectly fine.
Nominally a centre back – and one who reportedly excels there for the Hearts and Scotland U21 teams – McGhee finds it harder to impose himself in that position at the senior level due to a relative lack of aerial power. My friends insist he’s around the 6’ 2” mark, and he probably is, but he feels shorter, which is fairly damning whatever his true height is.
The fact that he threw away a hard-fought point at Pittodrie by momentarily forgetting which part of his body a footballer was allowed to use to control the ball rather puts the tin lid on my hopes that McGhee has a long-term future at Hearts. But then, he has apparently attracted interest from clubs like Middlesbrough and Sunderland, so what do I know?
I’m kidding, I know plenty, please keep reading this informed analysis of the Heart of Midlothian first team squad for season 2015-16.
Liam Smith – 7
Only a handful of appearances for the young fullback, but he mostly impressed with a calm competence, both in covering and going forward. Smith slightly eases the concerns about Paterson’s inevitable departure.
Prince Buaben – 7
Prince had to overcome both early-season injuries and the waning influence of the other half of his Medallion of Power, Morgaro Gomis. Once the team settled into a vaguely 4-4-2-ish shape in the latter third of the season, Prince found himself a niche as box-to-box-to-wide-positions-sort-of midfielder, and recast himself as a Mr Dependable performer. Probably the most vulnerable of the regular midfielders to having his place in the team upgraded in the summer, but he remains a very useful squad player and easily the coolest member of staff at Tynecastle.
Arnaud Djoum – 9
Djoum’s nickname should be Found Money. An unheralded, unattached midseason acquisition, in on a short-term deal while the club waited for a midfield injury crisis to abate, Djoum quickly turned out be Hearts’ best defensive option, best energy option and best creative option in midfield, as well as doing a capable turn as an emergency striker and, for all I know, a handy accountant and groundsman as well.
His performances dipped from the spectacular to merely excellent when latter-season tactics gave him the job of providing a platform for Jamie Walker rather than bursting through the lines himself, but the Belgian remains a vital part of this team, wherever he’s asked to do a shift.
Perry Kitchen – 7
In stark contrast to Arnaud Djoum, Perry Kitchen is such a specialist in his defensive midfield duties that he probably gets intense migraines if he sees a touchline in his peripheral vision. What he is, is a superb Perry Kitchen, probably the finest example of a Perry Kitchen in world football. What is in doubt is how badly Hearts need that game to game.
Certainly in most away fixtures and the tougher home games, a hard tackling, forward shepherding, short-passing presence is an excellent addition to the team. When the onus is on Hearts to create, however, Djoum and Prince aren’t quite able to generate enough additional guile to cover his brute functionality. Perhaps if a more refined central midfielder is signed in the summer to complement his innate Perry Kitchenness, the American can become a useful constant in the team. As it is, he’s kind of a bizarro luxury player, only useful in very particular circumstances.
Morgaro Gomis and Miguel Pallardó – 4
Hugely valuable contributors in the Championship, a combination of injury and age made both players too rusty to ever really get up to pace in the top division. A real shame, as Pallardó in particular theoretically has the deep playmaking ability that this team would really benefit from.
Danny Swanson and Don Cowie – 4
Both good performers as wide midfielders in SPL seasons past, both came to Hearts recast as potential answers to the lack of central creativity in the team. Both found limited opportunities and rather underwhelmed when they did get on the pitch. One left, one is still here, both remain palpably unexciting.
Sam Nicholson – 5
A season as mixed as a Drake album for Nicholson, in that it started promisingly with some exciting flashes, but eventually became tired and you’d really just rather spend your afternoon with Beyoncé instead. Injuries and odd personnel decisions meant that Nicholson had to play even when his confidence and energy levels were both shot, and his performances suffered accordingly. He needs a long holiday and a producer who’s brave enough to tell him that 10 great tracks are better than putting out filler.
Billy King and Dario Zanatta – 6
Here’s that odd personnel decision we just discussed. Billy King has spent the last couple of seasons establishing himself as third option behind Nicholson and Jamie Walker, but carving out a vital squad role as the sub who comes on and creates something out of nothing.
The decision to allow him to go on loan to Rangers seems to have been made to allow more game time for the Canadian winger/striker/superbike manufacturer Zanatta, but the plan floundered when Zanatta really wasn’t ready to play all that much at all, hence the extended and exhausted Sam Nicholson show.
Jamie Walker – 8
Like Paterson, the continued upward development of Walker is terrifying delight for Hearts fans savouring him while he’s here, hoping it won’t end too soon. A driving, creative force when cutting off the flanks, Walker elevated his game again when deployed as a second striker playing off Juanma towards the end of the season. Elevated it so much in fact, that he started to look ordinary when necessity forced him back out to the wing in games against Motherwell and Celtic. It will be interesting to see where the management team sees his long-term position lies next season – assuming, of course, that it’s the Hearts management team that has any say in the matter.
Juanma Delgado – 7
Aside from Juanma’s actual playing style – moderately skilful target man, like a tractor with adjustable suspension – he comes across like a caricature of a continental striker made flesh. Juanma lives to make emotional appeals to the referee, writhe in fleeting agony and make disbelieving shrugs at the injustice of a world that considers him offside for lingering mere yards in front of the defensive line.
Despite all this, when conditions are right and the formation plays to his strengths, Juanma is a useful striker at this level, as his team-high 12 goals will attest. If the situation is not just-so, however, he reverts to confirming everything your granddad believes about the Latin temperament.
Osman Sow – 8
There can’t be too many times in the history of football where a striker has turned up at a club, scored goals for fun, lit up the support with skill and production, become the fulcrum of the team as soon he touched the ball, and had the entire fanbase enthusiastically insisting he be sold eighteen months into his tenure.
In a different economic reality, Osman Sow might have become a modern-day John Robertson. In a world where China are as serious about developing their league as they are cavalier about spending money like a tourist who really doesn’t understand the exchange rate yet, no Scottish club could turn down £1.5m for a player on an expiring contract. So thanks for the memories, Osman – maybe the club will name the quarter of the new main stand you paid for after you.
Abiola Dauda – 6
There’s clearly logic behind the acquisition of Abiola Dauda on loan – a player Hearts never had a hope of being able to obtain on a permanent deal. The club needed to replace Sow, and last season, a short-term loan striker from a Dutch club slotted in seamlessly and scored the goals that propelled Hearts to the title.
However, not only was Género Zeefuik playing at a lower level with Hearts last year, his style of play is much easier to accommodate at short notice – “get the ball up to the big man quickly” does not exactly require extensive, Van Gaalian training sessions to get into the team’s collective head.
Dauda on the other hand is an elusive talent. His brightest moments have come as deeper-lying forward, reading play and using speed and technique to bring in midfield runners or set himself up for a precise finish. He’s the type of player that requires a preseason and carefully curated supporting cast to get the best out of him. It would appear that Hearts have not been able to approximate that in short time Dauda has been here, so in the end his tenure has to go down as another frustrating example of unfulfilled potential.
Gavin Reilly – 6
The early part of Reilly’s season was the archetypical young player struggling to find his role. Isolated minutes here and there as a winger or a number 10 revealed not much more than a great work ethic – so much so that a friend of mine initiated a Reilly Protocol, leaving for the pub whenever Gavin took to the field, as he considered this a signal that the game was effectively over.
That my friend continued to adopt the Protocol long after Reilly found his niche as an diligent support striker probably says more about his love of the pub than Reilly’s ability to influence a game, but we all find our joy where we can. Gavin Reilly found it in pressing defenders, running channels and generally doing all the hard work so that the less, ah, industrious talents of Sow and Dauda could flourish.
Reilly’s appearances started to dry up once Walker started playing in the support striker role, so it appears that his short to medium term future is more likely to be as a Plan B rather than first choice. The Protocol may see itself enacted for a while to come.
Robbie Neilson – 7
Football fans are interesting people, I said at the top of this article, and the merits of Robbie Neilson is where much interest lies. In a vacuum, a sophomore manager blending 10+ new signings into a promoted squad and achieving European football at a canter is a magnificent performance, worthy of huge praise and hope for the future.
On the other hand, it would be impossible to deny that this season – especially compared with last year’s goal-laden march to a title and promotion – has been a little bland. Back on the first hand, there have been numerous times in the last ten years where Hearts fans were dreaming of a solid team who were a little bland, so why does Neilson attract vitriol from a small but noisy section of the support?
My personal theory is that these are largely some of the more, ahem, traditional Hearts supporters, who are not enamoured with Ann Budge’s moves to tackle the antisocial and unsavoury elements that rear their heads on match days. These supporters feel threatened, but can’t really attack the woman who effectively saved the club from extinction (with the considerable help of the supporters themselves, obviously – but if Ann Budge isn’t there, neither is Heart of Midlothian). They also can’t attack Craig Levein (because no-one really knows what he does), so it’s Robbie Neilson who becomes the focus of attacks – ostensibly about his style of football, even though that football is objectively better than that seen under Csaba László or Gary Locke, and all those managers heard about it was murmured swearing into cups of Bovril, rather than a ludicrous airborne protest.
My personal feeling is that because it became clear very early in the season that Hearts were destined to finish third no matter what, and because Neilson enjoys a great deal of job security thanks to his track record and excellent relationship with Budge and Levein, he felt he had the leeway to use games against Celtic and Hibs as opportunities to experiment in preparation for a time in the near future when fixtures against bigger clubs would really matter, as Hearts were in a position to credibly compete for trophies. Intellectually, I don’t disagree with that (entirely theoretical) stance, but part of me does think that Neilson could perhaps have been more politically savvy with supporter expectations. He could have made more effort towards attacking those teams, and perhaps the support would be less divided and the atmosphere at Tynecastle would be as upbeat as it should be for club in as optimistic a position as it is.
Written by Nicol Hay
@nicolhay is the co-host of the @wehavenocares podcast