PREDICTED LEAGUE FINISH: THIRD
LAST SEASON: 3rd, 65pts
NOTABLE INS: Paul Gallacher (Partick Thistle), Bjorn Johnsen (Litex Lovech), Robbie Muirhead (Dundee United), Viktor Noring (Lyngby), Faycal Rherras (Sint-Truiden), Conor Sammon (Derby County), Tony Watt (Charlton Athletic, loan)
NOTABLE OUTS: Neil Alexander (Aberdeen), Blazej Augustyn (Ascoli), Morgaro Gomis (Kelantan), Liam Henderson (Falkirk), Billy King (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, loan), Jordan McGhee (Middlesbrough, loan), Lewis Moore (Cowdenbeath, loan), Gavin Reilly (Dunfermline Athletic, loan), Abiola Dauda (Vitesse Arnhem, end of loan), Soufian El Hasnaoui, Sean McKirdy, Miguel Pallardo
LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out):
The first draft of this was relentlessly positive, possibly because it was written before the Birkirkara game. The backlash from Hearts fans was quite impressive though. Sure, it was a hugely disappointing result, but it was one lousy performance. Surely not a reason to panic? Still, last year some supporters paid for a plane to fly over Tynecastle with a disparaging banner, even though the team were third in the league. The guy who sits beside me at Inverness was moaning at the players last week for a slack pass...when they were six-nil up. There seem to be thousands like him in Gorgie.
Well, it still feels to me like Hearts are on the up. Championship winners in 2014-15, third in the Premiership last season, a full Tynecastle every week (and an average attendance that would have put them a respectable 35th in England) and a new stand set to be built. Oh, and there's Ann Budge. Her imminent appointment to the SPFL board is terrific news; if I had my way, the rest of them would be sacked and she- with Hibs' Leanne Dempster as deputy - would be appointed Grand Generalissimo of Scottish Football.
Budge seems to have full confidence in Robbie Neilson, even if the fans don't. He certainly made errors last term, but he rarely made them twice. At 36, he is still remarkably young for his current role and there's every reason to believe he will improve further. Having Craig Levein as a mentor can do no harm; the Director of Football role is perfect for the former Scotland boss, who has a significant role in recruitment and overall strategy but isn't allowed to force a 4-6-0 formation on the first team. Given that the Jambos gave more starts to youth products than any other Premiership team bar Accies last season, and didn't sign too many duffers either, one would say that Levein is doing a good job.
So what next? A title challenge really would be extraordinary, but aspiring to overcome Aberdeen is perfectly realistic; there were plenty of signs in the second half of last season that they were at least the Dons' equals. Whether they can finish above a resurgent Rangers as well is unclear, but that outstanding home atmosphere won't do any harm at all.
One has to move forward to stand still, some say, and there's no place for sentiment here. Keeper Neil Alexander, impressive last season, was moved on because, at 38, a downturn seemed inevitable. Plus young Jack Hamilton is quite the prospect; he will compete with a new face, Swede Viktor Noring, for the gloves. Morgaro Gomis and Miguel Pallardo, fulcrums of the side that won promotion, was deemed surplus to requirements too, while Gavin Reilly, who never consistently looked like a Premiership player, and Billy King, who showed only flashes now and again, have been loaned out.
Expect Juwon Oshaniwa to find a new club shortly too; the erratic Nigerian left-back has now been supplanted by Moroccan Faycal Rherras, who will surely be a more reliable option. And up front, the return to Scotland of Connor Sammon and Tony Watt and arrival of Norwegian Bjorn Johnsen reduces the pressure on Juanma to get goals. If even one of those four proves to be a goal machine then Hearts are laughing. Eyes will particularly be on Watt; hopefully he can stop being such a lazy bugger and realize some of his remarkable ability.
If this is to be a truly outstanding campaign, the trick will be getting the younger players to perform at their best consistently. There's no doubt that John Souttar, Liam Smith, Sam Nicholson and Robbie Muirhead (given a chance by the Jambos after a nightmare spell at Dundee United) have lots of ability, but getting them to produce it every week is not so easy. But Neilson has already managed this trick with Callum Paterson, one of the league's best right-backs, and Jamie Walker. Walker was missed half their league games last season, so if he can stay fit and cause his usual havoc between midfield and attack then Hearts will be very dangerous. The rest of the team's spine - Igor Rossi and Alim Ozturk in defence, Prince Buaben and Arnaud Djoum in midfield - is formidable.
On paper, this is a strong squad. Yes, they lacked cohesion during the spring, but by about February it was 99% certain they were going to finish third, so it's not all that surprising there was some downing of tools. With the added incentive of trying to upstage Rangers as well, I reckon the Jambos will be up for it from the start of the new campaign. And I think there's enough quality there that they can still stay in third spot.
THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1995 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Paul Gallacher, Jack Hamilton, Viktor Noring
Defenders: Juwon Oshaniwa, Alim Ozturk, Calum Paterson, Faycal Rherras, Igor Rossi, Liam Smith, John Souttar
Midfielders: Angus Beith, Prince Buaben, Don Cowie, Arnaud Djoum, Perry Kitchen, Callum Morrison, Sam Nicholson, Jamie Walker, Dario Zanatta
Forwards: Robbie Buchanan, Bjorn Johnsen, Juanma, Robbie Muirhead, Alistair Roy, Connor Sammon, Tony Watt
THE BEST XI?
Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.