Jorge Grant can sometimes fly under the radar at Heart of Midlothian. The 29-year-old started the season very much as a squad player before becoming a first-team regular, but he often finds himself coming in and out of Steven Naismith's starting XI. One game he'll be masterfully orchestrating attacking moves in midfield; the next, he'll struggle to stand out.

Grant's performances can be inconsistent, but his presence is not. Over the course of the season, he has gone from a back-up option to a key member of the squad. When he's on his game, no other midfielder at Hearts has offered as much in a creative sense as the playmaker, and his importance to the team has only grown as time has worn on. 

READ MORE: What Hearts got wrong in County loss: Build-up, counter-attacks and low block

Seizing his opportunity

It wasn’t so long ago that Grant was on the brink of leaving Hearts. He didn’t feature at all in Hearts’ short-lived European campaign, made only two appearances as a substitute over the first 11 games of the season and was considering a move elsewhere towards the end of summer. “I was close to leaving towards the end of the window,” Grant later revealed. “It’s one of those things - I want to play football. That’s why I was looking elsewhere.”

The Englishman decided to stay put, quietly working away and putting in the hard yards in training, determined to seize his opportunity once it arose. When it did, he would do so in fine fashion.

Grant was handed his first start of the season – and only his second under Naismith – as Hearts travelled to Rugby Park for a League Cup quarter-final back in September. Grant would make quite the impression, scoring the opening goal, while his link-up play with Shankland was superb.

Look at his positioning for the opener. He's in a great area when Hearts are getting forward, and so he stays put. The ball should be played to him, but Alan Forrest is under heavy pressure and can't nudge it through.

Kye Rowles comes steaming forward and nicks the ball, and Grant is still open. He stays in space asking for the ball - and when Shankland tees him up, the finish is excellent.

Grant, Shankland and Forrest combined well throughout the cup tie at Rugby Park, and could have made Hearts' victory a bit more comfortable had they been a little sharper in the final third. Grant was at the heart of most of the visitors' attacking moves. Much of his passing in the final third was good, but there were a few occasions when he almost fashioned a great opportunity, only for the final ball to come up a little short . At times he was guilty of forcing it when the pass wasn't really on (more on that later).

Ever since that night in Ayrshire, Grant has been a regular fixture in Hearts’ first team. Barring a run of four games when he was injured, he has been in every matchday squad since – either as a starter or a substitute – and has only been left unused on the bench once. Calem Nieuwenhof and Beni Baningime are the only Hearts midfielders to have picked up more minutes this season.

As the season has worn on, Grant has become more and more important to the team. This is partly due to the lack of alternatives – Alex Lowry returned to Rangers in January, Barrie McKay has missed the vast majority of the season through injury, and Scott Fraser suffered a knock that interrupted his bid to regain match fitness after barely playing at Charlton during the first half of the season – but this does Grant a disservice.

READ MORE: New year, new Nieuwenhof: The inside track on midfielder's Hearts renaissance

A key player in an important role

There’s another, far more important reason that Grant has featured so heavily since that win over Kilmarnock: because he’s an excellent playmaker. Not only is he Hearts’ top creative midfielder, his stats are up there with some of the league’s best.

The above radar shows how Grant (red) compares the league average (blue) for all central midfielders in the Premiership with at least 600 minutes under their belts this season across some key metrics for the position. There are a few areas where Grant truly excels, such as his passing accuracy under pressure, key passes (passes that lead directly to a shot), open play xG assisted (which measures the quality and quantity of chances created, regardless of whether it results in a goal), deep progressions (dribbles or passes into the final third), and he ranks highly for fouls won. He doesn’t offer too much off the ball, but has a high rate of turnovers, even for someone in his position who is encouraged to take risks in the final third.

This tells us that Grant is one of the better performing playmakers that the Premiership has to offer, and the 29-year-old has a rather unique place in the squad. Take a look at the graphic below that shows how every Hearts central midfielder has performed in the league this season, and see if you can spot Grant within each category (hint: he’s almost always near the top).

He is second only to Macaualay Tait for assists per 90 (although it must be noted that Tait's sample size of 174 minutes is ludicrously small) and has the highest xG assisted of any midfielder on the books at Tynecastle. Some of that is helped by the fact he hits set-pieces but even from open play, Grant is comfortably the most creative player. He does commit a relatively high number of turnovers - again, set-pieces slightly skew the numbers here - and he ranks highly in passing metrics compared to his team-mates. In a creative sense, Hearts don't have another player quite like him. 


“He has got great football intelligence and he’s a smart footballer,” Naismith told Hearts Standard. “That’s probably went unnoticed. He understands the game, he understands it’s not ‘when the right-back gets it you must press’ and then he does that every time. His reading of the game, spotting what’s happening in-game – it’s very good. He is an experienced pro and he has learned that.”

READ MORE: Ability, versatility, consistency: How Alex Cochrane became a key Hearts player

Man for the big occasion

Grant has had some big moments this season. There was that goal at Rugby Park, a delightful assist late on in the crucial win over Livingston at home in November, his fantastic cross for the opener against Spartans, his penalties - and assists - in the wins over Celtic and Aberdeen earlier in the campaign.

Perhaps biggest compliment you can pay Grant is that he tends to play against Celtic and Rangers. He has played 421 minutes against the Old Firm this season out of an available 630 (two-thirds) because he is trusted by Naismith to take care of the ball and choose his moments. He is frequently one of the team's top performers in these games. It is something that Grant has been working on in training - and he is progressing nicely.

“He’s got a calmness and a lot of the time, the things he does in these games looks simple,” Naismith explained. “But in certain games simple is perfect and exactly what you need. Especially against teams at the top end of the league – you don’t want transitions against you and you can be comfortable that that won’t happen with Granty. He is somebody who a lot of the time makes the right pass at the right time.

“You can see his natural ability but I think the biggest challenge that we are setting him is… I watched him during his first season from when I was a coach. There were a lot of nearly moments. He would spot a pass and try a through ball, and it would nearly make it. Or he nearly scored, or nearly put in a great ball. But it was all nearlys. I said, ‘You’re not influencing the game with these nearly moments.

“We either need you to keep the ball and keep the attack going or have good quality – like Livingston at home – where you pick the right moment and you execute it. And ultimately we get an assist or a goal from it.

“The other thing with Granty is you can see his confidence and his bravery with his penalties. He has stepped up at times when we have missed three in a row and the quality of his penalties are brilliant. I think that tells you a lot about his character.”

Particularly when facing the Old Firm, where the margin for error is razer-thin and errors can quickly prove costly, Grant's timing and vision stands out. He has a knack of picking out a team-mate in space at just the right moment to get Hearts up the park and into dangerous areas. Like Naismith says: he does the simple stuff well. And that isn't easy in these types of games. Below are a few typical examples.

READ MORE: Calm, composed and collected: How Beni Baningime became a key player for Hearts

Striving for more

With McKay rejoining first-team training, Grant can expect competition for his place in the coming weeks but the Englishman has been making his presence felt in recent months. Six of his nine goal involvements (goals and/or assists) for the season have come since the turn of the year. Grant has been choosing his moments more carefully, and the team have been reaping the rewards.

With Yan Dhanda arriving in the summer and Fraser hinting at a permanent stay, it's an area of the squad that is potentially overloaded. Grant will be fighting for his place, but he buys into Naismith's approach. Constant improvement is a non-negotiable: something that Grant understands. Like everyone else at the club, he can always be better.

“There is still definitely a way to go,” Naismith said. “Like everybody in the squad, there are still moments where he can improve. For us to improve as a group, there will never be a point where we settle and go, ‘We’re happy with where he’s at’. If you look at the end of one season and then look at the end of the next season and the numbers are going down – the involvement is down, the work-rate is down – then that’s the time for a player to go through a manager’s eyes.

“For any player within the squad - they must constantly keep having that drive to get better. That’s no different for Granty. I think for Granty and guys at the top end of the pitch it is tougher because it’s those fine moments that win you games and make the difference. You’ve got to make sure that you pick the right moment to hit those passes, take those shots and have the calmness in the final third to score goals.”

Jorge Grant's time at Tynecastle Park has been defined by nearly moments. His progress this season has seen him, in those moments, begin to deliver more consistently.