HEARTS have become the sort of club that reach cup semi-finals more often than they sign new players.
Well, maybe not quite, but it seemed quite natural that when Gary Locke strolled over to speak to a handful of reporters at the Tynecastle team's training ground yesterday the opening question to him had nothing to do with tomorrow's League Cup encounter with Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
It's been a while since Locke had the chance to babble away about transfers in the way every other manager does, and at last he was fending the sort of enquiry which must have felt like music to his ears: "So, Gary, tell us about this new lad you've signed."
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The new lad was milling around only a few yards away. When Brad McKay arrived for training he walked straight past Paul McCallum without giving him a second look, clearly not recognising him as Hearts' first signing in more than seven months following registration embargoes imposed after the club went into administration last June.
McCallum, the 20-year-old brought in on loan from West Ham, where he has been playing regularly in the reserves, is a lanky 6ft 3in striker. "He gives us something different," Locke said. "We started the season without any real recognised first-team strikers. I spoke to a lot of people I respect in the game and Paul comes with high recommendations.
"He has been on loan a couple of times and no matter where it's been, he's found the net. Obviously that is something we've been lacking for most of the season, someone to get us a few goals. He's big, he has goals in him, he's good with both feet and hopefully he can hit the ground running. There is a temptation to throw him straight in on Sunday."
McCallum had offers from Hearts and an English League Two club. He took advice from a couple of former players before making his decision. The new arrival said: "They told me, 'it's a new experience, go and do it, go and enjoy it, you're young and hopefully you'll do well'.
"They said it's a very physical league. It was said there is only one team up here, Celtic, but they told me go and put myself about, be physical and score goals. This is my first time to Scotland so I've only seen the hotel and the training ground. I was introduced to everyone this morning. I can't remember a single name but hopefully that will come."
A precedent has been set for McCallum: a year ago Hearts signed Michael Ngoo on loan and he scored on his debut against Inverness in the League Cup semi-final at Easter Road.
Hearts were able to sign players only on a "one out, one in" basis. The SPFL granted them permission to sign McCallum as a replacement for Adam King, who joined Swansea City, but refused their application to sign Rudi Skacel, a free agent, after cancelling the player registration of their 39-year-old goalkeeper-coach Alan Combe.
"I wouldn't say it was a surprise but I'm obviously disappointed about it," Locke said on the failed attempt to bring Skacel back to Tynecastle. "I'm more disappointed for Rudi himself because all the lad wanted to do was play for Hearts and he has been denied that opportunity. He's here training today but I'll have to speak to him. It wasn't breaking the bank or anything: he was going to come here and play for virtually nothing.
"They gave us an explanation about Alan Combe not having been on the team sheet but Alan has been injured for most of the season. When he came back from injury, I had three keepers who were fit and ahead of him. That's the reason he's not been on the team sheet, because there are two other keepers pushing Jamie MacDonald ahead of him. That's the reason the SPFL have given us. It's one we have to accept."
Regardless, here was a spring in Locke's step yesterday. Hearts have some momentum after consecutive wins over Ross County and St Mirren. Avoiding relegation is beyond them but might the League Cup offer something thrilling?
The semi-final against Caledonian Thistle, who are struggling, suddenly seems a whole lot harder to call than it did, say, six weeks ago. Locke can recall Ryan Stevenson to his winning team after suspension and McCallum can expect to start.
Stevenson has unequivocally committed himself to Hearts after causing hubbub by being spotted with his agent at Rangers' game against Arbroath last weekend.
"Championship football next year [if relegation is confirmed] doesn't worry me at all," Stevenson said. "I'm more than happy to play for Hearts. I love the club and love coming into work every day. I'm blessed to play for such a big club and whether they're in the first, second or third division, I couldn't care less.
"I just want to be a Hearts player and I'll be here regardless of what league they're in. When I turned up at Ibrox last week I didn't know people would put two and two together. I just went along because I have mates who play for Rangers - and maybe I was having a look at the opposition we might be up against next year."
The cup offers an invigorating escape from Hearts' league struggles. Inverness have beaten them twice this season but those matches were under their former manager Terry Butcher. The Hearts fans would be beside themselves with glee if John Hughes's poor start continued tomorrow.
Locke's first game as permanent manager was last season's semi-final against the Highlanders. Hearts won on penalties but lost the final to St Mirren. What has changed for Locke over those turbulent past 12 months?
"I'm certainly looking older; I'm spending a lot more money on anti-wrinkle cream," he joked. "It's for other people to comment on how I might have improved [as a manager]. It's certainly been a difficult period, I'm not kidding myself on about that. But hopefully the things I've had to deal with here will stand me in good stead to be a better coach, a better manager in the future."
On tomorrow's match he added: "Inverness are still strong favourites. They have a really strong side and are still having a fantastic season. Having said that, if we play like we have done over the last two games we'll give ourselves a chance."