Among the many enjoyable aspects of our last foray into lower league football, perhaps the most novel was a season uninterrupted by insipid international breaks, with only a smattering of U21 call-ups from our relatively young and inexperienced squad to keep anxious tabs on. This time round the experience feels markedly different, with a vastly more experienced squad than the Class of 2015 and a handful of established international players at Robbie Neilson’s disposal.
Call-ups are therefore inevitable and, as we have already witnessed with Liam Boyce and Michael Smith during our first three Betfred Cup fixtures, those are likely to mean domestic games with key players unavailable. We also have players like Craig Gordon and Steven Naismith who harbour hopes of future Scotland call-ups and although their involvement seems unlikely just now, it is not entirely implausible when you factor in the unpredictability of Covid-19.
At a time when nations are discouraging unnecessary international travel as they struggle to control and suppress the virus, there is certainly a debate to be had over the rationale behind staging international football matches, particularly when players up and down the country are returning positive tests and missing club matches as a result.
Clubs and international sides can have all the requisite measures and bubbles in place, but the situation is so precarious that even the slightest symptoms have to be treated with the utmost seriousness, as Neilson discovered prior to Saturday’s second Betfred Cup group game against Cowdenbeath when new signing Stephen Kingsley reported a sore throat and was subsequently ruled out.
Though many of our players will have aspirations to play international football, the selfish Hearts supporter in me believes the further they are from external harm the better. Nevertheless, with the virus taking a noticeable toll on the game and no strict testing requirements at our level in particular, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll get through the upcoming Championship campaign without a single positive case of our own, international call-ups notwithstanding.
For that reason, the results over the past week have been particularly encouraging. One of the main talking points in the build-up to Tuesday night’s visit of Raith in our third Betfred Cup fixture was Neilson’s team selection, which included no fewer than eight changes to the side that laboured to an unconvincing 1-0 win over Cowdenbeath.
Of the side that started in Methil, only Jamie Brandon, Aidy White and young Scott McGill retained their places, lining up alongside Harry Cochrane, Lewis Moore and Euan Henderson in a youthful-looking side captained by Peter Haring, who made his first competitive start since the Scottish Cup final in May 2019.
Such wholesale changes raised more than a few eyebrows at the time, with many complaining about the lack of experienced heads and pointing to the pressing need for our strongest available eleven to get as much game time as possible ahead of the league opener against Dundee. However, with Covid rife and injury problems never far from Riccarton, the strength of the collective is almost certainly going to be as (if not more) important to Hearts than its strongest eleven, even in a season as unusually short as this one.
It was pleasing, therefore, to see that second-string side defy their doubters with an intense, dynamic display that stood in stark contrast to the pedestrian drudgery churned out by their more senior colleagues a few days before.
In the centre of the park, Cochrane and McGill (who look like two members of the same Pokemon evolution family) dictated play with the composure, confidence and cognition of players ten years their senior, the latter’s performance in particular belying the fact that it was only his second professional appearance. Out wide, Moore and Henderson, neither of whom was at his best, still offered glimpses of the energy that made them regular fixtures under Daniel Stendel.
None of these guys are first-choice in their positions – one or two might still go out on short-term loan deals to get more game time – but as the season progresses and injuries, illness and international breaks take their toll, they may well be called upon to deputise. There is some comfort in knowing that they have something to offer when that time comes.
Just as the performances of McGill and Cochrane offered a reminder of how well-stocked we are in central midfield, the hat-trick scored by Craig Wighton suggested our striking options may not be as threadbare as first feared either. While some seemed more keen to undermine than celebrate this achievement because it was “only Raith”, such individuals would likely have been first to get on Wighton’s back if he had drawn another blank. The kind of supporters who are steadfast in their opinions about a player and rarely change tack. The kind of supporters whose absence Wighton likely benefited from on Tuesday night.
After the Inverness game, I wrote about how Wighton needed to use the empty stands to his advantage and against Raith he did just that, first stepping up with confidence to score two penalties, then showing the craft and composure to collect possession in his own half, run at the defence and bury a third to secure the match ball; a fitting reward for his wider contribution throughout the match.
Ordinarily, the thought of dropping a player after a potential watershed moment in his career would seem counterproductive, particularly when that player’s confidence was so fragile before. Maybe it was the thought of that impending conversation that provoked Neilson’s exasperated reaction to Wighton’s third goal because, knowing what we now know about his predetermined Dundee lineup, Liam Boyce was always coming back into the fold and no hat-trick was going to change that.
However, what we also know if that this is shaping up to be a season full of unknowns, and like a lot of his teammates on Tuesday, Wighton will certainly have more chances to impress as the season progresses. The difference now is that there is greater confidence in his ability to take them.
What that means is healthy competition for places. It means when Hearts are starting to look a bit flat, there are players waiting in the wings to come off the bench and give the team that much-needed jolt. It means scudding Dundee 6-2 instead of 4-2. It means “first-choice” players not resting on their laurels. It means having such a variety of options that the club captain – the key Jenga piece that held everything together only a couple of seasons ago – finishes the game as an unused sub. It means a squad hungry to romp this league. And perhaps most importantly for us as fans, watching from a distance, it means having a team that – not unlike the last Championship squad – looks like it might actually be fun to watch again.
When the leagues voted on whether or not to introduce a five-sub rule, the Championship was the only league in Scotland to reject it, a decision laced with self-preservation. And with the strength in depth Hearts boast, who could blame them?