Matthew Crichton: Robbie Neilson won the Scottish Championship with Hearts last season - what do you think the club will be looking to achieve this season in the Premier League?
Adam Kennedy: It’s tricky to gauge where Hearts should be aiming to finish upon their return to the Scottish Premiership.
The Jambos were clearly too big for the second tier and historically, are Scotland’s third best performing side in the top tier.
However, they have been underperforming for a good few seasons now (eventually resulting in demotion to the Championship as COVID struck and the season was cut short). Fans will look at last season and rightly feel they can compete with Scotland’s elite, given they reached the final of the postponed Scottish Cup as a second tier outfit, getting the better of Edinburgh rivals Hibs before losing to Celtic in a penalty shootout following a thrilling 3-3 draw in December.
Most would accept a top half finish if it felt as though they were genuinely building towards something, re-establishing their reputation in the top flight, alongside a decent cup showing which wasn’t the case last season, crashing out in the second round to two part-time teams, one of whom was a non-league side.
MC: The Edinburgh based side have already played six pre-season friendlies and Scottish League Cup fixtures, compared to Sunderland’s one friendly. Are you expecting your side to be much sharper than Lee Johnson’s men?
AK: I would imagine that Hearts would look sharper than Sunderland at Tynecastle at the weekend, given recent competitive fixtures alongside pre-season friendlies.
Looking elsewhere, Scottish sides have been going toe-to-toe with some of their English counterparts in pre-season. Excluding a relatively rusty Rangers’ defeat to Tranmere, Celtic have got the better of Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday, Dundee drew with West Ham despite blowing a two goal lead and most notably, Hibernian got the better of Arsenal.
So results would tend to suggest that the Jambos may be sharper than their Mackem counterparts given Scottish sides have had something of a headstart in comparison to English teams.
MC: On the topic of the League Cup, do you think it is beneficial that Scottish clubs play cup matches during pre-season to give games an increased competitive edge?
AK: If you’re competing in the Scottish League Cup group stage, you’ll have missed out on European competition so aside from ticking off some lower league grounds, there aren’t too many positives.
One of those though, is competitive fixtures replacing pre-season friendlies, allowing your higher end Scottish sides to get up to speed against part-time teams, and gives lower league sides the opportunity to claim a scalp or two, working towards the chance of a knockout tie against one of the big boys.
So, whilst there was a dismissive attitude towards the group stage initially, I think the majority of Scottish football fans are warming to the idea of competitive games essentially replacing pre-season.
MC: Now 38, Hearts captain Craig Gordon is back at the club who Sunderland paid a record £9m back in 2007. How has he performed since returning to Tynecastle?
AK: A key reason as to why Hearts struggled in their last Scottish Premiership campaign was due to the inconsistency of the goalkeepers amongst their ranks.
Zdenek ‘Bobby’ Zlamal and Colin Doyle, the contracted goalkeepers, simply weren’t good enough and so there was a massive pressure put on Manchester United loanee Joel Pereira when he signed and he was arguably one of the worst goalkeepers the club has ever had.
With former Hearts academy graduate Craig Gordon out of favour at Celtic the season prior, many fans feel had Hearts signed him sooner then perhaps they wouldn’t have needed to suffer a season in the Scottish Championship.
Plus, having conceded the fewest goals in Scotland’s second tier last season, despite a sometimes dodgy defence in front of him, Craig Gordon’s importance cannot be emphasised enough.
MC: Hearts beat Sunderland to the signing of Liam Boyce from Burton Albion in 2020, has the Northern Ireland international forward proved to be an effective signing?
AK: Craig Gordon has certainly been the Jambos’ most effective defensive signing in recent times. Meanwhile, Liam Boyce has definitely proved their most effective offensive signing since arriving from Burton Albion.
A dream debut saw him score the winning goal against Rangers at Tynecastle before grabbing his second in as many matches in an enthralling 3-3 draw with St Johnstone. However, a wee goal drought was to arrive before the campaign was cut short and Hearts were sent down to the Scottish second tier.
Adapting to the Championship was no problem for Liam Boyce, who was comfortably the Jambos’ and the league’s top scorer last season. Having contributed to 23 league goals last campaign (14 goals, 9 assists), the most of any man in maroon since the stunning 2005/06 season where Hearts split the Old Firm, won the Scottish Cup and thereby qualified for the Champions League, It’s two in two for Hearts’ number 10 heading into this one.
A goal up at Peterhead arrived before scoring against Cove Rangers at home in midweek.
MC: Another player Sunderland were continuously linked with was Armand Gnanduillet when he was at Blackpool. How did the Ivorian get on last season following his January move?
AK: Armand Gnanduillet has yet to feature for the Jambos this season, so perhaps could be given a run out against the Mackems here in an attempt to build fitness.
Similar to Liam Boyce, he too started emphatically with a dream debut, albeit in Scotland’s second tier, after bagging a brace away to Raith Rovers from the substitutes bench (becoming the first Hearts player to score a brace on their debut as a substitute) in an emphatic 4-0 victory.
Only three goals have followed since but similar to Boyce, he’s been able to contribute to others’ goals and ended last season with 11 goal contributions in 14 matches (5 goals, 6 assists).
Yet to get going fitness wise, Hearts will be hoping he won’t be lagging behind the rest of the squad and are simultaneously optimistic that he can make the step up in division with relative ease.
MC: Do Hearts have any new signings who you are excited to see against a more challenging opposition?
AK: It’s been a quiet summer in Gorgie, with only three additions so far. Year after year, Hearts have had mass overhaul after mass overhaul with regards to their playing squad so fans are encouraged that the Jambos are taking their time when it comes to new recruits. For too long, it’s been a case of quantity over quality and supporters are hopeful that it’ll be vice versa.
The most noteworthy addition though has been winger Josh Ginnelly, who was with the club last season on loan from Preston North End.
With his deal at the Lilywhites expiring, Hearts swooped to sign the 24-year-old on a permanent basis and, like Armand Gnanduillet, are hoping that he can make the step up from Championship to Premiership with ease, having already shown what he’s capable of in scoring in the heartbreaking Scottish Cup final defeat to Celtic back in December.
MC: Who are the eleven players that you expect Neilson to select and what style of play can Johnson’s side expect to encounter?
AK: I’d imagine Hearts will use the Sunderland fixture as an opportunity to give some youth a chance. It’s been a case of fielding a strong eleven against both Peterhead and Cove Rangers, of Scotand’s third tier, in the League Cup group stage so far and the Jambos have reaped the rewards in doing so with 2-0 and 3-0 victories respectively.
It’s tricky to assume what the eleven will be given our first choice players are performing well, so perhaps it’ll be a case of fringe players and young guys being given the opportunity to impress and stake a claim for a spot in the starting eleven given it’s just over two weeks until the Scottish Premiership is underway.
MC: Lastly, what is your honest prediction of the final score?
AK: I recall attending a friendly at Tynecastle with Sunderland in which the sides played out a 1-1 draw back in 2009. Ten million pound man Darren Bent equalised for Sunderland that day, and having touched on the turmoil in west Edinburgh for the past few years, it’s fair to say that the standards of both teams have slipped since then sadly.
I’ll sit on the fence, given I’ve heard nothing with regards to team selection, and go for another draw but 2-2 this time, hopefully another couple goals on show!