Steven Naismith praised Hearts goalkeeper Zander Clark for “a brilliant year” and for the way he has dealt with the increased pressure of having the fit-again Craig Gordon pushing him for a starting place recently.
The 31-year-old former St Johnstone stopper made his debut for the Jambos a year ago and marked his 50th appearance with a penalty save and an 18th clean sheet in all competitions since taking the gloves as Hearts pulled off a dramatic 1-0 win at city rivals Hibernian on Wednesday.
Clark stepped in after Gordon suffered a double-leg break on Christmas Eve last year at a time when he was established number one for both Hearts and Scotland.
With the 40-year-old having made a remarkable recovery and forced himself back into contention for involvement in the matchday squad this month, Naismith paid tribute to Clark for the way he has coped with the spectre of such a highly-regarded goalkeeper breathing down his neck.
“I think there has been pressure put on externally,” said the Hearts boss. “I have been consistent with what I’ve said: Zander is a top goalie who has had a brilliant year.
“The circumstance he is dealing with is that there is a legend of the club, an unbelievable goalie, who is back fit.
“That is competition for places but it isn’t easy to deal with, especially as a goalie when there is only one position.
“But Zander has dealt with it perfectly. He is a top goalie. He took his chance a year ago, he’s come in and made his Scotland debut and he’s made a massive impact for us (against Hibs).”
Clark has kept 10 clean sheets in 19 league matches this term, underpinning Hearts’ recent surge to third place in the cinch Premiership.
Apart from free-scoring Lawrence Shankland, who snatched a stoppage-time winner on Wednesday with his 16th strike of the campaign, Hearts have struggled to get their forwards firing.
Asked how he would deal with the departure of the talismanic Scotland forward if he was to be sold in January, the manager said: “That’s part and parcel of football.
“I would want to get to a point where if a player leaves or you get a bad injury, you have a list there you can comfortably go at.
“We had it with Josh Ginnelly in the summer, who was a big part of last season for me. He moved on and we had to make different signings. When players go out of the team it creates an opportunity for someone else.
“I was at Kilmarnock when Kris Boyd scored all our goals. He went to Rangers in the January and everybody’s saying ‘what’s going to happen now?’ but me and Colin Nish stepped up and scored goals.
“It happens at every club. No matter who leaves, an opportunity arises for someone else.
“I’m comfortable with our squad. I think we’ve got a good squad. (Kenneth) Vargas, (Yutaro) Oda and (Kyosuke) Tagawa are still young.
“They have good moments and they have moments that can be better. But I think over time they can bring real quality to the squad. I’m comfortable with it all.”