‘We’ve turned a corner,’ Craig Levein eyes gap to the European places as Hearts visit St Johnstone


CRAIG LEVEIN believes the impending return of pivotal pair Steven Naismith and Jamie Walker can spark a surge towards the European places.

The Hearts boss is set to name Walker among the substitutes for this evening’s trip to face St Johnstone

The mercurial playmaker has been sidelined since suffering a fractured fibula against Motherwell on August 16 but has resumed full training in recent days and has shown no ill effects from his previous setback.

Levein is also weighing up whether to involve Naismith in Perth following his recovery from a persistent hamstring complaint, with the Tynecastle boss acutely aware of Sunday’s Betfred Cup semi-final against Rangers on the horizon.

Nevertheless, he is visibly buoyed by the prospect of adding THIRTY goals to his attacking ranks.

Levein said: “One of our biggest problems has been our creativity but Jamie Walker will be on the bench on Wednesday night. He is a proven 10 goal-plus striker or midfielder in the Premier League.

“There are no secrets about Hearts for Jamie Walker. He knows everything and knows that pressure comes with the job, basically.

“Naisy [Naismith] trained with us from Monday and, again, he is a 15 to 20 goals striker.

“I could probably put him on the bench tonight. It’s complicated but I can give him a full week’s training if he’s not involved in the game. That allows his numbers to get up higher and give us more certainty that he can be involved on Sunday. There’s a balancing act.

“There has to be a bit of leeway to allow everyone time to get back up to full speed but I do feel much better when I see them back training with us. It definitely lifts the levels.

“In the wider sense, I feel we have got over the worst of it.

“When I see these players coming back and see Uche [Ikpeazu] getting back up to full speed, then scoring goals should become slightly easier.”

Levein also expects to be able to call upon Loic Damour, Aidy White and Glenn Whelan at McDiarmid Park as the Jambos seek to build upon successive draws against Rangers and Livingston.

Should they lose against the rock-bottom Saints and results elsewhere go against them, Hearts could end the night at the foot of the Premiership.

However, Levein reckons the only way is up, insisting rising as high as third spot – currently occupied by Kilmarnock – is far from an insurmountable task.

He continued: “This game feels important. So did Saturday and so did the Rangers game, as I feel in some ways that we have turned a corner.

“The last two performances have been much better.

“We have been much more like us, much more competitive and, if we can keep that level of competition and add the quality which is returning, then I feel that we will be back on track pretty quickly.

“We are nine points off third place after a torrid spell but I feel much more positive.”

It has been nine years since Hearts last registered a league victory at McDiarmid Park, with Kevin Kyle and Ryan Stevenson rippling the net in a 2-0 triumph in November 2010.

And, while Levein believes the Saints’ woes have been overstated this term, he is adamant the capital club can end that hoodoo tonight.

He smiled: “We haven’t won in Perth since 2010 but we’re unbeaten in seven against St Johnstone – I’ll look at it that way!

“I’ll expect what I usually get up at Perth, which is a tough time.

“I’ve been watching their games and they’ve actually been playing okay. Apart from the Rangers and Celtic score-lines, the rest have been fairly tight and they’ve missed chances.

“The teams outside the Old Firm are much more condensed this season and St Johnstone will be looking at the same league table I’m looking at – Tommy [Wright] will be saying ‘I just need two or three wins and I’m in the top half.’”