BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Hearts’ preparations for the visit of title-chasing Aberdeen have been plunged into chaos, with the Jambos set to have just one day of training for arguably the biggest match of their season.
With gastroenteritis sweeping through the dressing room, players were yesterday ordered to steer clear of their Edinburgh base for 48 hours as the capital club fight the bug which has obliterated their squad.
It left the Hearts Football Academy resembling a ghost town as the medical staff take every possible precaution to ensure the the virus, which has laid low 17 players, is not spread any further.
It will remain closed today and head coach Robbie Neilson has his fingers crossed that two solid days of rest and recuperation will see several of his key men return to contention for Friday’s sold-out clash with Aberdeen at Tynecastle.
Nevertheless, the disruption ahead of the televised showdown on Friday night is immense, with Hearts still harbouring hopes of catching the Dons in second spot.
The players are due to report back for training on Thursday morning, just 24 hours before they are due to face Derek McInnes’ men.
Hearts saw their Ladbrokes Premiership encounter with Inverness, which was due to take place last night, postponed on Monday afternoon after club doctors provided thorough evidence of the outbreak to the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL).
The team bus, which only contained eight recognised senior players supplemented by six members of their under-20s ranks, had reached Perth before getting word that their request had been granted.
The unavailability of both senior goalkeepers, Neil Alexander and Jack Hamilton, was a key factor in the SPFL’s decision, while they also noted “sickness of all those affected and potential for further infection”.
Seventeen-year-old Kelby Mason, who is yet to make a first-team appearance, was the club’s only available goalkeeper, while Hearts would have been unable to name an eligible goalkeeper on the bench.
However, it is understood that Tynecastle hierarchy fully expect Friday evening’s clash against Aberdeen to go ahead.
Hearts will give Alexander and Hamilton every possible opportunity to recover for the visit of the title-chasing Dons but, should they still be laid low, Neilson could explore the option of snapping up a goalkeeper on a free transfer or emergency loan.
The Gorgie outfit have previously signed custodians on short-term contracts to allay a goalkeeping crisis during Neilson’s reign, signing Lee Hollis and Bryn Halliwell in August 2014 following injuries to Neil Alexander and Scott Gallacher.
Meanwhile, Neilson has emphasised that he will target quality rather than quantity as his recruitment plans for next season gather pace.
Hearts owner Ann Budge confirmed this week that she back the club for a tilt at the title, while they Jambos are also facing the tantalising prospect of a Europa League campaign.
And, despite the fact this season is only just reaching the final straight, Neilson stated “we have a strong list of players we are trying to recruit” ahead of next term.
Nevertheless, he has vowed to run a tight ship rather than risk flooding his squad with mediocrity.
He added: “The problem we have is, if you carry a bigger squad, the budget is the same. So you have less quality.
“Or you can have more quality in a smaller squad – I’m leaning towards that option, while bringing in young players to help out here and there. I don’t want to carry too big a squad.
“Yes, we’ve got a lot of games. But I want the quality to stay here. I would hate to let one player go in the summer and replace him with a player who isn’t better.”