New-look Hearts have it all to play for against Sky Blues
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25 Jul 1998
Hearts v Coventry IT WAS only two months ago that more than 15,000 people packed Tynecastle on a sun-kissed Sunday to watch Hearts parade the Scottish Cup.
Earlier that day, 200,000 people had lined the streets of Edinburgh to cheer the team on their homecoming with their first trophy in 36 years, secured after their victory over Rangers in the Scottish Cup final.
Yesterday, in a deserted Tynecastle stadium, that trophy was on show yet again, but this time only for the cameras as the new-look Hearts team assembled for their pre-season photocall.
The club's cup final captain, Steve Fulton, has made it clear that he believes that win was the beginning, not the end, of the current Hearts team success.
Fulton believes that the nucleus of the side that captured the cup last season and put together a good run in the league can capture the flag this time round.
Already the bookies are tipping Hearts to run Rangers and Celtic close in the race for the league and the Tynecastle club's assistant manager, Billy Brown, was at Prenton Park, the home of Tranmere Rovers, on Wednesday evening to have an early look at Rangers in action, who they play in their first league game.
During the close season, they have brought in a number of new players like Steven Pressley from Dundee United, who had been attracting the attention of Hibernian before Hearts won the race for him, and experienced campaigner Rab McKinnon from Dutch outfit, Twente Enschede.
Among the trialists who have been given their chance by Hearts, it is Austrian Markus Holemar who has been attracting the best reviews.
American Josh Henderson, who once turned down a two-year contract with Ajax, will not be offered a contract with the club after trials, while former AC Milan midfield man Simone Baldo has been impressing the Hearts management team.
Manager Jim Jefferies watched Baldo in action earlier this week when a Hearts X1 went down 2-1 to Berwick, with the 28-year-old Italian getting the Hearts goal.
One familiar face missing from yesterday's team photograph was that of John Robertson, who left the club for Livingston in the close season.
With him gone, there will be more weight of expectation on the shoulders of last season's top scorer, Jim Hamilton, and Frenchman Stephane Adam, who will form the most likely forward partnership.
Manager Jim Jefferies will also be expecting a lot from winger Neil McCann, who showed in glimpses last season what he is capable of.
With Rangers not continuing their interest in David Weir, the Tynecastle club's defence looks settled, with Weir holding together the young guns like Paul Ritchie and Gary Locke, who will be joined by Rab McKinnon.
The club's short tour of Ireland to play Bohemians and Celtic's European opponents, St Pat's, allowed Jefferies to have a close look at the fitness of his charges, as did the match against French side Metz, which they lost 1-0.
They take on Coventry City today, a side managed by Hibernian fan Gordon Strachan, who has brought a strong team north of the border for the friendly.
The last time Hearts played Coventry at Tynecastle was three years ago in a testimonial match for Craig Levein when the Edinburgh club was managed by Tommy McLean.
Less than 4,000 people watched the game and, from a Hearts point of view, it was notable for being one of the first games Hearts defender Paul Ritchie played for the club.
Watching from the stands was Gary Locke, who broke into the Hearts side around that time and is likely to captain the team this time round after returning from injury.
Locke made it clear that, with nearly 14,000 season tickets sold, the players would be looking forward rather than dwelling on the glory of last season, and were hoping to build on that success.
Expected to be missing from the Hearts line-up is Pressley, the former Coventry player, who has picked up a leg injury, as well as midfield man Baldo, who is still not fully match fit.
Midfield player Colin Cameron and Dave McPherson are also injury doubts.
Coventry come to Scotland with a strong side featuring Dion Dublin and striker Darren Huckerby, men both on the fringes of the England set-up, and Irish striker Noel Whelan.
Against Livingston earlier this week, they recorded a 3-1 victory, although they were behind until 20 minutes from time when George Boeteng's free-kick and two goals from substitute Sam Shilton, son of former England goalkeeper Peter, won the game.
Strachan has made it clear he wants his team to continue in their winning ways but would have told his players they will face a tough test against Hearts, whose players will be competing for a place in the starting line-up for that first league game.