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Happy New Year all!

The year is not even a fortnight old and already our new Sporting Director Joe Savage has set the bar high with two crucial pieces of business mere days after starting the job, firstly tying Michael Smith down for another year and then luring former Celtic and Aberdeen winger Gary Mackay-Steven to Tynecastle, despite interest from clubs at a higher level.

It is generally believed that this signing would not have been possible without the generous Government grant given to lower league clubs, which has sparked some deliciously ironic seethe from supporters of top flight clubs who, not so long ago, were telling us to take our medicine and accept our status as a Championship club. Julie Andrews may have sung about a spoonful of sugar, but a no-strings £500,000 payment is just as effective in helping the medicine go down.

Both announcements came as a shot in the arm for Hearts supporters who have been left stewing over the abysmal manner of our 3-1 defeat to Dundee last week, a game that highlighted the importance of Savage’s recent business, given Smith’s absence and our complete lack of threat from the wide areas.

In a game that was crying out for some attacking width, it was telling that neither Elliott Frear nor Jordan Roberts made it off the bench. If that wasn’t a sign that Neilson’s faith in their abilities is waning, the much-heralded arrival of Mackay-Steven after weeks of talk about wing reinforcements most certainly is. 

However, the fact that reinforcements are even required in that position reflects just as badly on the recruitment. After all, this was Neilson’s primary area of focus during the summer, resulting in three signings. While Josh Ginnelly has been a revelation in the four appearances he’s actually been fit enough to make (scoring three times) the other two have brought very little to the table from a creative standpoint.

Since the opening day of the season against Dundee, when he set up Stephen Kingsley’s second and played a part in the build-up for Andy Halliday’s goal, Roberts’ contribution has dropped off a cliff, crossing just nine times in his subsequent four league appearances. Having been signed as a supposedly creative outlet, Roberts has so far been conspicuous by his absence.

In Frear’s case, it’s certainly not been through a lack of trying. According to stats compiled by Wyscout, Frear has attempted 19 crosses in his six league appearances so far this season (the joint-16th highest in the league) and sits fourth in the league for accuracy at 42%. However, accuracy alone doesn’t tell the full story, and though Frear may be more successful than most in reaching his intended targets, the quality clearly hasn’t been high enough to create scoring opportunities. 

In terms of assists per 90 minutes, neither he nor Roberts make the top 30 in the league, while seven of their team-mates do: Olly Lee, Andy Irving, Liam Boyce, Andy Halliday, Craig Wighton, Jamie Walker, and surprisingly Christophe Berra, who laid on Wighton’s first and Hearts’ equaliser against Ayr from an unusually advanced position on the left.

In addition, neither player makes the top 30 for second or third assists (i.e. the two passes that precede the main assist), which suggests a lack of involvement in the broader phases of play that lead to goals. When you consider how much Hearts are expected to dominate teams in this league, such a low return from two supposedly creative players is pretty alarming.

The Boxing Day clash with Ayr United was perhaps the most revealing in that respect. With Ginnelly unavailable after contracting Covid-19, the pair were included in the starting line-up, and with that, given golden opportunities to prove to their many doubters that they had something to offer. Though neither was directly to blame for the goals that left us trailing 2-1 with half an hour to go, the fact that their respective withdrawals for Steven Naismith and Craig Wighton immediately preceded a four-goal turnaround was hardly a glowing indictment of their contributions.

While Frear has appeared again since, coming off the bench for the last 20 minutes of the 3-1 win over Arbroath, Neilson’s decision to bring Euan Henderson on ahead of both players at Dens (something he has seemed generally reluctant to do so far this season) told its own story.

Though a player of Mackay-Steven’s calibre would always be considered an upgrade on our current options, regardless of how they were performing, the fact that we desperately require his services so soon after signing three others in his position only serves to demonstrate the kind of poor recruitment supporters have grown disillusioned with in recent seasons.

The circumstances around Frear’s arrival are more inexplicable than Roberts’. While the latter has more miles left in the tank at the age of 26, Frear is now in his 30s and was never going to be a long-term option, something the club clearly acknowledged when it offered him just the one-year deal. 

Considering how comfortable Neilson was with developing youngsters in a more competitive Championship back in 2014, it seems strange that he has comparatively less faith in our current crop of academy graduates. Henderson and Lewis Moore may not provide the answers to our wide problems either, but given how much emphasis the club puts on the importance of its youth academy, you have to wonder what risk Neilson has seen in trying to develop them at this level while persisting with two senior professionals who offer nothing themselves.

Prior to the aforementioned game against Ayr, Frear spoke to the Evening News about his disappointment with how his Hearts career has gone so far, insisting that there was still better to come from him. It was an interview that could just as easily have been a copy and paste job from previous ones conducted with any number of signings we’ve made over the past few years, such is the regularity with which we’ve heard such hollow statements.

I have absolutely no doubt that Frear believes he can do better – I’d question any player who was satisfied with what he’s produced thus far – but whether he’s actually capable of doing so is another matter entirely. It goes back to the point I made a month or so ago when talking about Mihai Popescu and the kind of soundbites so many players have come out with in recent seasons about needing to do better and dealing with the expectations at a club like Hearts, yet rarely putting any of that dialogue into practice.

In this season of all seasons, any member of this Hearts squad who has designs on staying with the club longer term should be standing out as being far too good for the Championship. Many have, but the likes of Frear and Roberts have not. Their intentions may be good, but either they simply aren’t good enough or they don’t have the strength of character to step up.

This is where the signing of Mackay-Steven represents such a positive shift as far as our recruitment goes. Evidently too good for the Championship, he has clearly been signed with the Premiership in mind, having played in the top flight for both Aberdeen and Celtic, accumulating multiple winner’s medals into the bargain. 

He is therefore far less likely to arrive at another of the country’s biggest clubs with the same crippling self-doubt suffered by so many of the raffle winners who pitched up before him. By contrast, he’ll know he’s good enough to be here, and if that is the prototype of Joe Savage’s signing policy, we’ll be in safer hands than we were under his predecessor.

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