With just a couple of days of the transfer window remaining, Hearts boss Robbie Neilson has said the club are still working on bringing in at least one more signing. It is a formidable statement of intent, when the strength and depth of the squad is evident. Compared to a couple of seasons ago, and most teams in the league, the Tynecastle gaffer, who has his side sitting in third place despite having to compete in Europe and domestically this term, has the kind of back-up from the bench that others can only dream of.
Against Livingston it was only enough for a draw, though, which is why the work is ongoing. But, already missing captain Craig Gordon and their most experienced defender and striker, in Craig Halkett and Liam Boyce, as well as midfielders Beni Baningime, who was arguably one of their best performers before he was injured, Neilson was also without the experience of Peter Haring, Andy Halliday, and Michael Smith, and one of their recent top performers James Hill. The Gorgie manager also left the likes of Robert Snodgrass, Barrie McKay and Josh Ginnelly on the bench for various reasons.
Football being football, that glut of ability does not always guarantee a win but most managers would swap that depth of squad for their own. So, news that business, that has included the arrival of HIll, as well as the attacking potential and pace of Australian youngster Garang Kuol and Japan’s Yutaro Oda in this window, is not yet done is intimidating. It also speaks to Hearts’ desire to close the gap on the two big Glasgow sides.
“We are still trying to get one more in but as we’ve said, it has to be somebody of quality who can improve the squad. We are working on a couple but whether we get one we will wait and see,” said Neilson post-match. He did reveal that some of their youngsters may be sent out on loan to get competitive game time and develop. “But at the moment we are keeping the first team [squad] together”.
After a five-minute substitute appearance for his debut against Aberdeen Yutaro Oda was given the tougher task of making an impact against a Livingston side who have given little away against Hearts this term. It was a big ask for the 21-year-old Japanese forward as the game passed him by a bit and he will take time to settle in. He did get into good positions on a couple of occasions but couldn’t convert. He was replaced at the start of the second half by Garang Kuol, who brought greater pace and energy to the game and linked up more fluidly with Stephen Humphrys and Lawrence Shankland, but the 18 year-old should have done better when through on goal. He forced a double save from the Livi keeper but it was a great opportunity to break the deadlock. “They are coming in from different continents and it is a difficult place to come,” said Neilson. “We kinda threw them in at the deep end but they did well. Oda hasn't played since November so we knew we’d only get a half or 50 minutes and Garang showed some real pace and quality and sharpness.”
The Livingston boss had been very open and honest in acknowledging that his criminal past and his stint in prison have probably hampered other clubs’ willingness to take a chance on him. But, it does seem short-sighted when it is clear that he does have something to offer as a manager. Clubs like Aberdeen, along with Motherwell and St Mirren have been willing to overlook the jailing of Declan Gallahher, who has also been capped since his release and rehabilitation, and he is not the only player to be given a second chance. Which is why, given the wonders he has worked on a tight budget at Livingston, it is surprising that no-one has taken a punt on Martindale.
Some, who are unperturbed by his past, have voiced reservations about his ability to perform the same miracles at a club without the advantage of the Tony Macaroni Arena. But, sitting fourth, above supposed big-hitters like Aberdeen and Hibs,he has shown what decent recruitment, preparation, hard work and man-management can do. And while they are formidable on the West Lothian artificial surface, the fact is they have won and drawn almost as many on their travels, which says it has less to do with the pitch and more to do with the gaffer.
Before he took over in November 2020, the significance of playing at home was clear but, under Martindale, in 2020/21, they actually had a better away record while again finishing in the top six. Last season they were just one win better off at home, and this term, while challenging for Europe, they are only one additional win and one more draw at home. It seems strange that no-one has come in for Martindale who has long acknowledged, repented and served his punishment. But Livingston won’t care if it allows them to hold onto their manager for longer. It just seems short-sighted from others.