BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
WITH a clinical striker, reinforcements on the wings and an experienced left-back on Craig Levein’s January wish-list, weeks of wheeling and dealing lie ahead at Tynecastle.
However, legendary Hearts keeper Henry Smith reckons tying clean sheet king Jon McLaughlin to a new contract would be the best signing the Jambos could make.
No-one knows the pressures of life between the sticks in Gorgie better than Smith, having made 645 appearances in 15 years for the capital club, and he believes McLaughlin’s composure and quality has been the backbone to a remarkable defensive record.
Their 0-0 draw against Aberdeen on December 30 was Hearts’ sixth successive shutout; the first time in their 143-year history that they have achieved that feat. It continued a nine-game unbeaten run stretching back to the beginning of November.
The only down side, Smith knows, is that McLaughlin will be catching the eye of suitors north and south of the border, with his contract set to expire in the summer.
“It would be a huge boost for everyone at Hearts if he was to sign on to a longer contract,” said Smith. “From everyone I talk to at the club, he is fantastic around the place. His teammates all like him, the coaching staff already see him as a key senior pro and the fans have taken to him.
“He is a calming influence on the Hearts side and that’s reflected in this run of clean sheets.
“He works really hard and isn’t shy to have his say during teamtalks and things like that, so it’s clear he is an important part of the group and you need big characters like that at a club the size of Hearts, with the pressures that go with that.
“If you are playing well, then other clubs will come sniffing. I’m sure there will be many managers in Scotland and England thinking ‘that’s a calm keeper that spreads confidence in the back four’. If you have a steady keeper that hardly makes any mistakes, that’s half the battle, so I’d imagine there will be interest.
“Hopefully he sees his future at Hearts and he can keep playing at this level because he has been a great signing.”
Smith is adamant McLaughlin’s influence is bringing out the best in those around him, with the Jambos now boasting an impressive spine, from Christophe Berra, through Don Cowie up to Kyle Lafferty in attack.
“Jon has bags of experience down south, is a level-headed character and he exudes confience to the defenders around him,” continued Smith. “You just need to look at how well Christophe [Berra] and John Souttar – who has been magnificent of late – are playing to see that.
“Belief always spreads from your goalkeeper through the whole team.
“As well as that strong personality and character, he is also doing the business when called upon. Jon has made some really important saves during this run of clean sheets, commands his area and demands the best from those around him.”
With McLaughlin and Hearts’ miserly backline excelling, Smith believes the Jambos have every chance of ending their derby hoodoo when they face the city rivals in the Scottish Cup fourth round on January 21. He just wishes Levein had a ‘Hammer of Hibs’ like John Robertson in his ranks.
“We have to beat them again sometime,” laughed Smith. “Although, as I keep telling all my cocky Hibee mates: they still have another 13 matches to go to beat my 22 derbies unbeaten in a row!
“If you don’t lose goals, then you don’t lose games and Hearts never look likely to concede, so of course we’ve got a chance. That’s always been Craig Levein’s philosophy.
“We just need to find that killer touch at the other end – a wee Robbo [John Robertson] character who will nick an ugly goal and turn these draws into wins.”
While dazzled by the displays of McLaughlin, Smith insists deposed Hearts stopper Jack Hamilton will not be the forgotten man at Tynecastle for long.
The 23-year-old endured a challenging second half to the 2016/17 campaign as his form dipped and supporters got on his back – and Smith is adamant former boss Ian Cathro did Hamilton no favours by failing to take him out of the ‘firing line’.
Nevertheless, he is adamant the stopper he once earmarked as the next Craig Gordon will bounce back.
“When Jack first came into the side, he was playing really well,” recalled Smith. “I thought ‘he is going to follow in Craig Gordon’s footsteps’, then his kicking went all over the place and the crowd got on his back.
“As a young keeper, when the fans turn on you, the confidence goes straight away.
“That was the point he should have been brought out of the team. But the manager [Cathro] didn’t do that, he just kept putting him in the firing line again and again. That decision has cost Jack.
“I’ve spoken to Jack a couple of times and I’ve told him he is too good a goalkeeper to fade away just because of a bad six months. You don’t lose all that potential – he’ll be back and, in the long run, be ready to fight with Jon for a place and Hearts’ goalkeeping situation will be very, very healthy.”