Small squad has been Hearts’ strength but stretch marks are showing

by Apr 6, 2022

I had almost forgotten the mixed emotions an international break can conjure up when your own players are involved. Naturally, you want them to play, do well and report back for club duty feeling ten feet tall, but above all else you want them to come back in one piece.

It’s not something we’ve had to worry about too much until recently. With the odd exception, Hearts players haven’t exactly figured prominently in national team managers’ plans, which is unsurprising given the general dearth of quality on show at Tynecastle in that period.

I know a lot of people don’t care about international football (I’m still learning to enjoy it myself for the first time in about 15 years) but there is an element of partisan pride in knowing our club captain is currently one of the first names on Scotland’s team sheet (and now an all-time top 10 cap holder); in seeing Craig Halkett and Nathaniel Atkinson receive their first call-ups for Scotland and Australia respectively. That you can also legitimately point to a handful of others in the Hearts squad who could consider themselves unfortunate to be either injured or simply overlooked on this occasion, is a sign that things are going well at club level.

At the same time, that feeling of pride is matched (if not eclipsed entirely) by the level of anxiety these call-ups induce. It was a relief, therefore, to see all our internationalists make it through the break unscathed, even if Craig Halkett’s exposure to injury was significantly lower as the only outfield player in the Scotland camp to be named in both match squads and not play a single minute.

Steve Clarke will have had his reasons for this and I’m not going to use this piece to ponder what those may have been. On a personal level, the lack of game time will undoubtedly be a source of disappointment for Halkett after the high of receiving his first call-up. However, from a selfish maroon-tinted fan point of view, it’s probably for the best. 

The two Craigs have been two of our most influential players this season, so the prospect of either getting injured ahead of a pivotal fortnight does not bear thinking about. We all saw what life was like without Halkett only a couple of months ago and many of us are still recovering from the experience. The same goes for Craig Gordon, because anyone who disputes that something cheesy can give you nightmares clearly never saw Ross Stewart play in goals. 

After that Tannadice trip and the more recent news that Beni Baningime will be out for the rest of the season with cruciate damage, the body count has suddenly started to resemble a Tarantino film. 

Robbie Neilson has spoken before about the decision to run with a smaller squad and the benefits of that have been abundantly clear at various points this season, namely a tighter-knit group with higher quality in reserve that can be utilised to significant game-changing effect.

It has also meant that the odd injury-related absence was never felt too keenly (with the exception of Craig Halkett as noted above). Now, with the injuries racking up at an alarming rate, the talent pool looks markedly shallower. 

That position was laid bare on Saturday when only five outfield players could be named on the bench in Dingwall, among them the largely ineffective duo of Ben Woodburn and Josh Ginnelly, and two teenagers who were still to make their first team debuts.

International breaks have been something of a disruptive influence for Hearts this season. On every occasion, they have been preceded either by a decent run form or a particularly reinvigorating result. On every occasion, we have failed to win the first game back. Granted, one of those was a rare point at Ibrox, but even the flicker of positivity from that result was snuffed out by a three-game run comprising draws with Dundee and St Johnstone and a first league defeat of the season at Pittodrie.

However, with third pretty much in the bag and resources already stretched as thinly as they are, the result at the weekend was arguably of secondary importance to making sure we got through the 90 minutes without further casualties. There were a few heart in mouth moments, therefore, whenever a player in light blue was seen writhing around in pain on the Victoria Park turf. 

Thankfully, nobody left the field through injury and no fresh injuries have been reported in the days since. Ahead of a derby double-header, no news can only be good news.