DANIEL STENDEL, the Hearts head coach, has questioned whether vastly experienced midfielder Glenn Whelan is truly a ‘leader’, casting the player’s future at Tynecastle into severe doubt.
The 35-year-old, who boasts 91 caps for the Republic of Ireland, was left out of the Jambos’ match-day squad for the Boxing Day derby defeat against Hibernian following three underwhelming showings on Stendel’s watch.
The German is adamant he is not doubting Whelan’s willingness but made it clear he has not seen any evidence that the former Stoke City and Aston Villa can exert his influence in the engine room.
Whelan has made 17 appearances for the capital club and contracted to Hearts until next summer but, unless he can win over the new boss, appears increasingly likely to cut that short.
“I have seen only three games. Do you have the feeling he is a leader in this group?” said Stendel. “I can say he is a good type. He wants to take responsibility.
“It’s not Glenn’s fault – but a real leader in the centre of the pitch? Sorry. Maybe I missed it.
“Before I came here, they [Hearts] signed some players who have experience and are the right age to take responsibility.
“Maybe they are not fit at the moment or they cannot handle the situation at the moment. This is a big issue for us.”
Stendel’s comments only serve to underline Hearts’ desperate need for January reinforcements, with an unbalanced squad currently either lacking the confidence to play the way he demands or simply incapable.
He adds: “There are expectations on your performance. At the moment we cannot be satisfied with the performance of some players.
“The question is: is this the quality, the situation or the mentality? Is there too much pressure? I don’t know. I think it’s both confidence and quality.”
Liam Lindsay, who shone under his tutelage at Barnsley before joining Stoke City during the summer, has been strongly linked with a move to Gorgie next month.
Hearts’ former interim manager Austin MacPhee, who will head up their recruitment until a sporting director is appointed attended Stoke’s recent 2-1 defeat against Middlesbrough to watch Lindsay and has worked with Potters boss Michael O’Neill with Northern Ireland.
And, while steering clear of mentioning specific players, Stendel did confirm that his preference will be to sign players he has previously worked with.
“At the moment I can’t say we will bring in this player or that player,” he continued. “What I can say is I would prefer, in this situation, to know the players a little bit more than just knowing they are a good player.
“Every good player is not the best player for us. We need the right mentality and the right attitude – and we need them not to be injured every two weeks. We can have the best player but if he can only play five games . . . ”
Seeking solace from a desperate situation, Stendel did heap praise on ‘unbelievable’ Aaron Hickey, confessing the precocious left-back has made himself impossible to drop during his brief tenure in the dugout.
He has also been impressed by make-shift right-back Sean Clare, who was arguably the Jambos’ standout performer against Hibs and is likely to retain the role for tomorrow’s Premiership clash against Aberdeen.
“It’s unbelievable that Aaron Hickey is on the pitch,” adds Stendel. “I didn’t expect this from him. But every week he surprises me.
“Before I came here I saw he played more games than anyone expected, so maybe he needs a rest – but we cannot give him a rest because he has been our best player in the last four games!
“When I work with him and he gets some players next to him who can help him, he can improve so much more. At the moment he is good, but he can be really good.
“I can see that some players want to change things – you can see they have done it and improved. One example is Sean Clare. When I came, the supporters were cheering when he came off but in the last games he has shown that he can help us, that he wants to improve.
“This, for me, is a good sign. But with other players – I wait for the reaction. I wait for more.”