GARY LOCKE, the Hearts manager, admitted that he fears his squad could be raided as the club's exit from administration drags on.
Locke has twelve players out of contract this summer but re-signing negotiations cannot begin until administrators BDO hand over power to chairperson-elect Ann Budge. Sam Nicholson's rise to prominence at Tynecastle is likely to make the Scotland under-19 winger a target for other clubs, while goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald has had an outstanding season.
Dylan McGowan, Jamie Hamill, Jamie Walker, Jason Holt, Brad McKay, David Smith, Dale Carrick, Callum Tapping, Mark Ridgers and Gary Oliver will also be free agents at the end of the campaign.
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All 12 would be entitled to open negotiations with suitors but Locke, whose side are bound for relegation from the SPFL Premiership, hopes he does not lose his best players.
The Hearts manager is all too aware of the challenges his side may have to face in a Championship containing Rangers next season.
"Your worry with all the players is that other clubs will come in for them, especially the younger ones," he said. "We've got a lot of youngsters in the team, but there are one or two playing exceptionally well. There's a lot of clubs watching us because we're such a young team.
"We just have to hope that the ones that are doing well see their future at Hearts because you wouldn't want to lose them at this stage in their development.
"We can try and get things moving a wee bit, but you've really got to wait until things are in place before you start negotiating with players.
"The players have been patient so far so hopefully everything can get sorted out in the next few weeks."