BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
HEARTS midfielder Sean Clare has paid tribute to the nurturing influence of Scotland star Steven Fletcher after watching his former Sheffield Wednesday teammate emerge as a hero at Hampden.
Plenty of eyebrows were raised when Fletcher, 31, was named in Alex McLeish’s squad for the must-win encounters against Albania and Israel following 13 months in the international wilderness.
However, those doubts were silenced in two all-action displays, with the former Hibs, Burnley and Sunderland attacker providing in a crucial focal point in attack, helping the likes of Ryan Fraser, James Forrest and Ryan Christie to shine in crucial victories.
That comes as no surprise to Clare, who spent two years on the books at Hillsborough with Fletcher prior to his summer switch to the Jambos.
“Fletch is a top guy and was really welcoming, especially when I and a few other players made our step up to the first team,” recalled Clare. “You could see he’s still got a lot of quality and a lot of experience but, more than that, he’s a great guy and a great player.
“When I first broke in [to the first-team] he was always involved and I learned a lot from him – where to make my runs, when to hold, when to go. He still looks a class act.
“He really helped me. As a young player you go in there and you can be very nervous but he cut through that and involved me like I had been there all season. He is someone you can approach and talk to. He has always been helpful.”
Clare sees similarities with prolific Jambos loan star Steven Naismith, whose place in attack for Scotland Fletcher took.
Naismith is currently sidelined until December following a knee surgery and to say his absence has been sorely felt would seem an understatement.
The experienced forward found the net 11 times in 18 club appearances prior to limping off in Hearts’ Betfred Cup semi-final defeat against Celtic last month. The Jambos have not scored a goal since.
“Fletch and Naisy are both top quality players, they’ve played at some unbelievable levels against some great teams. There are similarities between them and I have tried to learn from both of them every day I have trained with them.
“That’s one of the big things I try to take from both of them; holding the ball up, bringing players in, spinning off. They both score goals but bring s many different things as well.
“I think those two in the same Scotland team wouldn’t be a bad front line!”
Without Naismith, however, Hearts must find a way to navigate their first dip in form of the campaign, having failed to win any of their last four games in all competitions.
And Clare feels increasingly ready to contribute as he seeks to live up to the hype that accompanied his £140,000 signing in the summer. Boss Craig Levein has gradually introduced him to the senior side after he spent much of the close season recovering from foot surgery.
“I’m feeling good, I’m feeling a lot better now,” said Clare. “I’m getting fitter and stronger with every day and feel ready to go. It can be frustrating at times but I’ve just got to keep trying to force my way into the team.
“I’ve learned from the football I’ve played up here so far and I’m going to take lessons from them all and improve my game every day.”
Hearts would appear to have a golden opportunity to arrest their recent dip this afternoon when they visit St Mirren, sitting second from bottom of the Premiership and with just five points from 13 games.
“On paper, it looks a good game to have,” he smiled. “But every game in this league is tough, you see that from the results. We’ve just got to go into it with a positive mindset and a game-plan and give 100 per cent.
“If we play our game and not get caught up in different things I can’t see why we won’t be fine.”