Heart of Midlothian Season Preview: Can the Jambos regain last season's early form?
Teenage midfielder Harry Cochrane in action for Hearts. Source:GettyImages/Alan Rennie

Following a turbulent 2018/19, it’s very difficult to predict what we’re going to get from Heart of Midlothian this term. A superb start to last season saw the Edinburgh club leading the league by the end of October,  followed by a dramatic (if admittedly injury-ravaged) decline, culminating in the Gorgie side barely scraping into the top six. The departure of Arnaud Djoum and ongoing concerns over key man Steven Naismith’s ability to last a full season free of injury have done little to raise expectations for this year.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Influential midfielder Peter Haring has extended his contract till 2022, Harry Cochrane is a year older and more experienced, and the club have an embarrassment of riches at centre-back. If Naismith can stay fit, and Uche Ikpeazu regains the form of early last season, the Jambos may be looking to improve on last season’s finish. Either way, watching the Tynecastle club is rarely dull. With manager Craig Levein cheerfully unaffected by criticism surrounding his side’s sometimes robust style, and seemingly taking great delight in winding up both the media and opposing managers, Hearts are always worth watching regardless of form. 

Transfer Business Overview

Whatever misgivings Hearts’ fans may be having about the coming campaign, they will surely be buoyed by the arrival of their new centre-back; the signing of 24-year-old Craig Halkett from Livingston represents an excellent piece of business. Halkett’s form at the Tony Macaroni Arena last season led to rumours of a Scotland call-up, with the defender now joining John Souttar and Christophe Berra in what is surely one the strongest defensive squads in the country. Elsewhere, Northern Irish striker Connor Washington arrives from Sheffield United, while winger Jamie Walker has rejoined his boyhood club, after a single season in England with Wigan Athletic.

The arrival of the left-sided Aidy White, meanwhile, is one of the most interesting rolls of the dice in this season’s SPFL. Despite holding down a regular place for Leeds United by his early twenties, the 27-year-old Yorkshireman has not kicked a ball in professional football for nearly three years, following a horrific spell of injury. Levein possibly sees White, who is reportedly nearing match fitness, as a ‘free hit’ signing which may or not work out. 

In terms of departures, Cameroon international Arnaud Djoum’s decision to move to Saudi Arabian club Al-Raed will leave a big hole to fill in midfield. Czech forward David Vaněček, who departs Tynecastle after a single, goalless season, will be missed somewhat less. Ryan Edwards also leaves after a single but highly eventful year, which saw him loaned to St Mirren (where he took to social media to enthusiastically celebrate a goal against his parent club), before returning to Gorgie and scoring in the Scottish Cup final. The midfielder moves to England to join League One side Burton Albion.

A number of other fringe players have left the club. French midfielder Malaury Martin has had his contract cancelled by mutual consent, while Canadian international defender Marcus Godinho departs for German 3. Liga side FSV Zwickau. Veteran defender Aaron Hughes has retired.

Early Season Form

Worrying, to say the least. The Jam Tarts scraped through to the knock-out stages of the Betfred Cup after failing to beat Dundee United and East Fife in 90 minutes and having to come from a goal down against bottom-tier Stenhousemuir at Tynecastle in the last ten minutes to secure a narrow victory. While Levein has been typically bullish in defence of his team, pointing out that despite only scoring five goals so far in the campaign, his team have had 75 shots, Jambos’ fans have unsurprisingly been expressing concern. With the opening three games featuring trips to Pittodrie and Celtic Park, victories in their first two home fixtures against Ross County and Hamilton Academical are already looking like a necessity to avoid serious unrest among supporters. 

Player To Watch: Steven Naismith

Although Naismith might be a slightly obvious and uninspiring choice for this category, his talismanic importance to the club cannot be overstated. The former Kilmarnock, Rangers, Everton and Norwich City man brings a wealth of English Premiership and international experience to the club and won last season’s player of the year despite being injured for long spells. The striker’s early-season form propelled Hearts into an early title lead last term, with his injury-enforced break a key factor in their subsequent dramatic loss of form. Naismith’s experience and goal-scoring ability, as well as his unerring knack of winding up opposition players and fans, make him undoubtedly the one to watch for the Jambos this season. 

One For The Future: Aaron Hickey

While 18-year-old Harry Cochrane is obviously still one for the future (both for club and probably country), the Glaswegian is entering his third full season as a first-team player. As such, Aaron Hickey is the new one to watch this term. Levein describes the 17-year-old, who was given only his second professional start in last season’s Scottish Cup final, as the best two-footed player he has ever managed.

With Levein enthusing to reporters after the game at Hampden Park that “I’ve never seen a player as comfortable on both sides,” Hickey is likely to play a significant role for the Gorgie side this term. 

Predicted Finish

Anywhere between third and eighth is entirely plausible, with fourth or fifth perhaps the most likely. While the capital side have absolutely no chance of breaking into the top two and are unlikely to finish ahead of a rejuvenated Aberdeen squad, they may well take advantage of Steve Clarke’s departure from Kilmarnock to overhaul the Ayrshire side. Assuming Naismith can stay fit, the Jambos could well be in a shootout for the final European spot with Edinburgh rivals Hibs