BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
CRAIG LEVEIN admits Hearts are toiling to field a team against Kilmarnock on Sunday after revealing he has just 12 fully fit outfield players.
The Jambos boss will appeal to the SPFL for permission to recall their four players who are currently registered as development loans with other clubs, Dario Zanatta, Aidan Keena, Alex Petkov and Daniel Baur.
In the minuscule pool of non-goalkeepers Levein can call upon, seven are teenagers and three – Chris Hamilton, Connor Smith and Dean Ritchie – have never kicked a ball for Hearts’ senior side.
“If the game had something major riding on it, this would have been a disaster,” said Levein. I am going to ask the league if we can get back our development players to at least go on the bench.
“I have even looked at the younger ones, guys who have just turned 16 like Sean Ward, who has done really well in our under-20s team, but he is on an academy contract. So I can’t do that.
“Suffice to say I’ve got a good idea of who will be playing – but I don’t know where!
“In other circumstances, I might have asked for a postponement, although I doubt we would have got it because I think you have to have less than 11 players to get that.”
The experienced manager even entered his weekly press conference with a print out of his 41-strong squad list which has been decimated by injuries and suspension.
Jon McLaughlin, Aaron Hughes, David Milinkovic, Don Cowie and Ross Callachan are his only recognised senior regulars who are 100 per cent. Kyle Lafferty is a doubt with a shoulder knock.
“Twelve outfield players who are fit to play,” he smiled ruefully. “I’ve never seen anything like that in a million years. Well, in all my time anyway – sometimes it feels like a million years!”
Levein admits Lafferty is desperate to feature against Killie as the towering Northern Irishman seeks to become the first Hearts striker since John Robertson in 1992 to notch 20 goals in a single season.
However, Levein is adamant his impact has already been mammoth, regardless of whether he hits the milestone, and is hopeful the club can fend off any interest in their number nine.
“Kyle landed on his shoulder and there is some ligament damage,” said Levein. “It is just whether he can play with the pain. That carrot of 20 goals is something that is in his head and he wants to achieve that.
“He has scored some brilliant goals this year. The one the other night [against Hibs] was sensational. A different type of goal but it was sensational.
“He is a big-game player. He scores in big games. I am just keeping my fingers crossed that there aren’t any suitors in the summer and he is still with us.”
Meanwhile, Hearts midfielder Ross Callachan is adamant the Gorgie outfield have the ‘bragging rights’ over Hibs going into the summer, despite trailing their fierce foes by 17 points in the Premiership standings.
Callachan, a boyhood Hearts fan from Bonnyrigg, has lapped up the celebrations following the 2-1 triumph at Tynecastle – especially after spending much of the campaign getting pelters from the other side of the city.
“The win gives us the bragging rights over the summer and it’s probably the best we have played against Hibs this season,” said the former Raith Rovers man. “It just shows we can go and do it in the bigger games.
“A lot of my mates are Hibs fans and they are constantly getting at me – so it’s nice to be able to give a bit back. A lot of them have been quiet the last couple of days, I don’t know where they have been!
“I think we can close the gap to them next season. We need to start well, the manager will have a full pre-season to get over his own way of doing things and ideas, which he obviously never had last summer and, if we can start the season better, we will have a good chance.”