Sitting next to Craig Halkett at the club's Oriam training base you get a better understanding and appreciation of why the Heart of Midlothian centre-back must be a nightmare for opposition forwards.

The 29-year-old is in his training gear having just finished the first of two training sessions a couple of days before flying out to Tenerife for the club's warm-weather training camp. To be blunt, he is a f****** unit. His calves look like they've been carved out of ancient oak only found in remote, uninhabited areas of Japan. They alone appear to pack in more muscle than your average Joe as in their whole body.

Halkett is in great shape for an important pre-season. In fact, to use his own words, "the most important". The last couple of summers have been "hard" without a normal or full pre-season.

He explained: "During the off-season, people were asking: 'Are you looking forward to pre-season?' Your normal answer is: 'No.' This year, I was actually looking forward to it because I haven't actually done pre-season for two years. It's not until you miss out on one that you realise how important it is.

"In the last few years, I've been trying to play catch-up. As hard as you work with the coaches, physios and sports scientists, I don't think you can ever replicate what the squad do during pre-season. Playing catch-up was kind of my story for the start of the last two seasons. Obviously, it didn't work out for me. I kept breaking down. Since I got my tidy-up operation at the start of April, my knee is feeling brilliant and my fitness is feeling good. I'm raring to go.

"I'm older now and I understand how football works. In my position, it's definitely the most important pre-season. I'm not daft. The boys who played there last year did really well. It's not a case of me getting fit to play games and just expecting to come straight back into the team.

"I know I'm going to need to work really hard and fight for my place. That's something I'm going to enjoy and I'm looking forward to doing it."

Halkett has been preparing to do so for months now. After suffering his latest injury, 26 minutes into the Scottish Cup tie with Airdrieonians in February, he essentially had his off-season, before returning to full training in the final weeks of the campaign. Unlike Liam Boyce, he didn't get back on the pitch. No matter. He took only a week off and since then has been working four to five days a week. A pre-pre-season if you like.

That has included working with Kevin Kelly and alongside Aidan Denholm and Barrie McKay

Halkett's most recent injury came in February against Airdrieonians. (Image: SNS)

"He worked really closely with Baz over the last few years," Halkett said. "Before, I've leaned on coming back in here and working with the coaches here. We have our B team in right through the summer but with travel and him being based in Glasgow, it was easier. It was something different and it was enjoyable. It definitely gives you that little head-start.

"You need to come back ready to go nowadays. You don't want to be coming back behind everyone else, using the first three or four weeks to just get your base fitness back, then you need touch, passing and positional stuff. Getting a touch of the ball a few weeks before coming back in, and then getting straight back into it, you definitely feel a lot better."

He added: "I've rested enough over the last 18 months, not through choice but through injury. I didn't feel I needed much more."

Having had two seasons of frustration through injuries, it would no doubt be easy to get frustrated and not pay any attention to football beyond your team and your rehab. That's not been the case with Halkett. He has been keeping a keen eye on Hearts, always sitting behind the dugout for home games, but also continuing his education as a defender by watching football. Any football.

He figures he watched between 300 and 400 during his time out. 

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"Mentally, it has definitely made me a lot stronger," he said of missing time through his injuries. "I'd only had injuries of six to seven weeks maximum before this, so I hadn't had anything major long-term. I feel mentally stronger. I think I also have a much better understanding of the game, which comes with age as well.

"That's all I was doing. I'd watch anything that was on during the week as well as all our games.

"You start to look at the game and think how you can play better or change your game. Along with all that and stuff off the field, you realise because you are getting older you start to do things a wee bit differently. Maybe do wee bits of extra stuff to help your recovery and to get stronger as you get older.

"You concentrate on the game but you watch players in your position. I wouldn't single anyone out and say: 'That's how I want to play.' Just watching the boys who played last year - Frankie [Kent], Kye [Rowles], [Stephen] Kingsley and Toby [Sibbick] - and seeing what they did well, there are maybe things you watch and try to help them with or improve. It's a team game and you want to help each other."

There are fans reading this who have likely used or thought of the term 'injury-prone' regarding Halkett. He's not unaware of such a view. Not that he goes searching for it but it finds him anyway.

"It doesn't really bother me," he said. "Your mates see it and your family see it and they obviously bring it up. You've really got to just have the blinkers on. You can't let anything like that affect you. You are a footballer, you want to come in, train every day and play games. You don't mean to get injured.

"In my case, a lot of it is freak tackles. It's not muscle injuries or something you can blame on fitness or training or not doing the right things. I've obviously had one of the worst injuries you can get in football. It's just about getting your head down, working as hard as you can, and doing everything you can on and off the park to stay as fit as possible."

Halkett has put plenty of work in prior to pre-season.Halkett has put plenty of work in prior to pre-season. (Image: SNS)

There will be staying fit to prove a point. The focus is on staying fit to do the one thing he hasn't been able to do these past two seasons: Play injury-free consistently.

"Once you are fit, it's not something you think about," he said. "When I first came back from my knee, I didn't think during games: 'Oh, I don't want to get injured again.' I was just trying to play with a freedom. When you have been out for so long, it's going to take a while to get back to where you were before in terms of performance.

"Getting injured again wasn't at the front of my mind, nor was proving to people that I could stay fit for five months, 10 months, two years. You know what I mean? I was just concentrating on the job."

The job now is to make himself as valuable in the centre of defence as he was when the team finished third in the 2021/22 season. In that campaign, Halkett was one of the most dominant defenders in the league. So much so that he was called up to the Scotland national team and it seemed only a matter of time before he would take that next step.

Heading deeper into pre-season the centre-back options are well stocked. Halkett and Frankie Kent. Lewis Neilson and Daniel Oyegoke. Kye Rowles and Stephen Kingsley.

"We have had a few meetings already, talking about the aims, goals, formations and things like that," Halkett said. "One of the things Naisy touched on was that last season, only once did we play the same starting XI back-to-back. The coaches here like to do that. It's not rotating the squad for the sake of it.

"He just emphasised that we need a big squad, we will have so many games and he wants to use every one. They are all going to be needed. You can't just come in and expect to play every single game. It's a big squad and a competitive squad. You definitely need that going into European football."

The hope now is that European forwards are in for a rude awakening when they come head-to-head with Halkett.