Austria v Scotland: Hartley happy to be the soul of Hearts

Walter Smith is a man of his word, as Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Alex McLeish can now testify. The Scotland manager put club before country by refusing to call up players from Manchester United, Everton and Rangers for this Wednesday's friendly with Austria.

Smith would rather that his managerial compatriots guided their sides into the Champions' League. So Darren Fletcher, David Weir, James McFadden, Barry Ferguson, Steven Thompson and Ian Murray will be resting while their international colleagues are flexing their muscles in the Arnold Schwarz- enegger Stadium in Graz.

The home town of the local body-builder made good is an apt place for a potential football fairytale. Paul Hartley is not seeking the Governorship of California or even Hollywood stardom, yet if the midfielder can fulfil a leading role in the build-up match for Scotland's World Cup qualifying group double-header with Italy and Norway next month, he too might soon need dispensation from this sort of puny occasion.

The absence of his top players because of European club commitments is something Smith had budgeted for. The only silver lining is that Hearts, who provide Smith with four of his team, including the gifted Hartley, are strangely absent from the Uefa Cup and can spare Hartley, Steven Pressley, Andy Webster and Craig Gordon.

The quartet will be playing today away to Dundee United, seeking to remain in pole position in the Scottish Premier League after their fine start under new manager, George Burley, who has not only shown the potential to take on the the Old Firm on the pitch but has done so off it, by rejecting bids from Rangers for Webster and Celtic for Hartley.

Hartley's rapid progression since going to Tynecastle in 2003 from St Johnstone has been nothing short of remarkable. He has leapt from the Scottish First Division to the San Siro, not looking out of place a few months ago when he made his debut at the age of 28 against Italy.

Last week, he signed a new contract with Hearts with an enhanced salary that recognises his growing status and revealed he was planning to let his contract expire next year before Burley convinced him his future lay in Edinburgh. "There's no doubt one of the turning points was when George came into the club in the summer," said Hartley. "We've had two or three meetings and he stressed that he wanted to keep me, which is what you want to hear, it's very important.

"I could have just sat out the last year of my contract and taken my chances in the summer and went somewhere else. I'm sure I wouldn't have been short of offers. That might have been on my mind before the manager came in but I decided that I wanted to stay here, I'm enjoying my football and that's the most important thing.

"As soon as I saw his plans and the way he wants to play football, it changed my mind and I'm delighted that I'm here for the next three years at least." Despite being a boyhood Celtic fan, Hartley is reconciling himself with the fact his ambition to join the Parkhead club is now unlikely to be realised. "The chance passed me by and I haven't really thought about it and I wasn't sitting here waiting on Celtic coming for me.

"I was just going to do what was the best for myself and I think I have done that and I have made the right decisions for my family and my football career."

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