Opening Weekend Talking Points
Happy Friday all! After a busy week, and having had enough time to let my blood pressure return to normal after last weekend’s pulsating return to the Premiership, I have finally found a few spare moments to sit down and reflect on the major talking points to be drawn from the 4–3 win over St Johnstone (albeit slightly later than planned).
1. The fighting spirit from last season is still strong
On several occasions in last season’s Championship campaign, when matches seemed to be heading in a particular direction, the team fought until the final whistle and turned almost-certain defeats into draws and disappointing draws into wins. At Ibrox on the opening day of last season, for example, the team had barely given themselves time to register the disappointment of conceding a last minute equaliser, before Osman Sow tucked away the winning goal at the other end, setting the benchmark for the rest of the title race. Sunday was almost a carbon copy of that scenario, only on this occasion, a 3–3 draw after leading by two goals would arguably have dealt a greater blow to the team’s confidence going into the new Premiership season.
It was pleasing therefore to see the players refusing to crumble after relinquishing a comfortable lead, which (like that turnaround at Ibrox last year) could prove to be a real statement of intent for the season ahead. After strolling to a Championship title and securing promotion, some newly-promoted teams would be content with simply playing top flight football.
Given Hearts’ stature in the domestic game, however, there are expectations that go beyond simply staving off relegation and, as a result, there will be no resting on laurels. With Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson at the helm, the players will be more than aware of the need for continuous improvement and personal development if they are to successfully negotiate the step up in quality and achieve the minimum objective of a top six finish.
2. Paterson’s progress
One player who has taken that requirement for self-improvement and run with it is Callum Paterson. Having clearly spent most of his summer locked away in the gym, Paterson has undergone an astonishing physical transformation, from last season’s skinny beanpole to the athletic powerhouse we’ve witnessed in recent weeks.
While clearly on a smaller scale, the change in Paterson’s physicality is pretty similar to that of Gareth Bale, whose own build and athleticism improved considerably before he enjoyed his first proper whirlwind season at Spurs. Although the gulf in technical ability is almost immeasurable, it is still pleasing nonetheless to see our own players striving to improve whatever aspects of their game they feel will give them a competitive edge.
Having shown a great deal of promise over the past few seasons, albeit with the inconsistency that is expected from younger players, Paterson now looks like he is on the cusp of a defining season with Hearts as far as his development is concerned. If he continues the form he showed in Sunday’s game, where he demonstrated both his solidity in defence and his potency in creating and scoring chances in the final third, he will be a hugely important player for us this year and will be showing up on bigger clubs’ radars sooner than we may hope.
3. Familiar attack, unfamiliar defence
What also stood out about the Championship-winning team from last year was how many of the players had a hand in the 96 goals scored, with every outfield player (who played a significant number of games) getting on the score-sheet at least once. Considering we are only two competitive games into the new season and have already seen six different players net a combined total of eight goals, the free-scoring trend from last season does not appear to be tailing off any time soon.
Unfortunately, the five sloppy goals that were shipped last week suggest our new-look defence needs more time to gel before it can begin to replicate last year’s defensive solidity. While each member of the backline has shown glimpses of his own individual ability so far, the communication and understanding between them requires work before they can become a fully-functional unit.
At this stage, however, it is not worth worrying about too much and is more down to the circumstances of pre-season. Augustyn and Ozturk, for example, have yet to complete a consistent run of games together due to niggling pre-season injuries, while Igor Rossi, barely in the door from Maritimo, has already been utilised in a more unfamiliar left back role (which will presumably end once Juwon Oshaniwa is ready to start).
It is also easy to forget that Ozturk himself took a bit of time at the start of last season to build an effective working relationship with fellow centre back Danny Wilson, yet went on to record an impressive defensive record. With arguably more talented defenders alongside Ozturk this season, there is every reason to be optimistic about the backline once its individual components eventually click.
4. Premiership refereeing is as bad as it has ever been
While the players will undoubtedly face higher quality opposition on a weekly basis in the Premiership, the same step up in quality cannot be attributed to the match officials (unsurprisingly). As if to showcase the sheer ineptitude of Scottish referees, the powers that be gave the curtain-raiser between Celtic and Ross County to Willie Collum, who only took 20 minutes of the new season to disgrace himself, something of a personal record for the man.
Collum is, of course, in a class of his own when it comes to mind-boggling incompetence, but Steven McLean’s showing at Tynecastle on Sunday had all the marks of a Collum tribute act. In a very stop-start game, McLean’s performance was a shining example of the bizarre moral compass a lot of referees have, where the most minor of infringements are penalised at every opportunity, yet it is acceptable for a player like Liam Craig to regularly yell obscenities in the whistler’s face and go unpunished. Unfortunately, I sense this display will simply be par for the course.
5. Liam Craig is as angry as he has ever been
Speaking of Liam Craig, what was also clear from Saturday’s game is that the fiery-tempered midfielder has not yet discovered inner peace away from Easter Road. In hindsight, and in the comforting knowledge that the game was won, the wild abandon with which Craig celebrated Saints’ equaliser in front of the home fans, instead of lapping up the adulation of his own travelling support, was particularly amusing.
It is pretty evident that in his two pathetically unsuccessful seasons at Hibs, the existence of Heart of Midlothian got right under Craig’s skin. Matches against Hearts now only serve to remind Craig of his back catalogue of failures against us: regular defeats, missed penalties, “relegation parties”, League Cup exits. Imagine, therefore, the rare glimmer of happiness he must have felt in the immediate moments after that equaliser: a chance for personal retribution ripped away from him so quickly he barely had time to muster a semi. Winning goals do not come much sweeter.
Moving on swiftly, and the next piece of league business for the Jam Tarts is a Dundee side brimming with confidence after their own storming start to the season. Although a 4–0 away win is always an impressive way to open your season, it is worth noting that this came against a flat, uninspiring Kilmarnock destined for a relegation scrap, and therefore should not be over-hyped.
With the likes of Rory Loy, Greg Stewart and one-time Robbie Neilson target Kane Hemmings heading their attack, Paul Hartley’s team will obviously pose a threat, but provided Hearts can tighten things up at the back and continue to attack with the same tenacity as last week, there is every chance of three points returning to Edinburgh on Saturday night.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on August 7, 2015.