Players have Dun Well to make opening games Count
As I frantically refreshed my Twitter feed for match updates during the agonisingly chronic final few minutes of yesterday’s Premiership encounter with Ross County, I found myself experiencing traumatising flashbacks to a previous trip to Dingwall in September 2013.
Back then, when overturning a 15-point deduction was the primary objective, Hearts were moments away from taking a significant step towards closing the gap on the rest of the league thanks to an early Callum Paterson strike, only to concede two late goals and leave empty-handed. Supporters would be forgiven, therefore, if memories of that afternoon caused them to sweat a little during the closing moments yesterday. However, while events in Dingwall two years ago dealt the first of many sickening blows that sent the team spiralling towards relegation, yesterday’s resilient performance will hopefully have the opposite effect and galvanise the team towards a successful campaign.
Having taken maximum points from the opening four games of the season, when most supporters (and possibly Robbie Neilson and co themselves) would have been content with at least seven, the early signs are as positive as they can be. Perhaps more encouraging than the results themselves, however, is the way in which those results have been achieved.
The determination to push for the win despite conceding a late equaliser to St Johnstone on the opening day was surpassed only the following week against Dundee when the team responded remarkably well to come from a goal down and leave with three points. The clean sheet that followed in the midweek meeting with Motherwell brought the defensive stability that had been badly lacking in the opening two games, although the Steelmen’s lack of attacking threat made life that bit easier for the Hearts back line. For that reason, yesterday’s result is arguably the most significant of the four.
After going two goals ahead early on, the Hearts defence had to withstand some intense pressure to keep the lead intact, particularly after Liam Boyce’s penalty halved the deficit for the hosts. Two weeks ago, that Hearts defence might very well have crumbled in such circumstances, considering how easily they relinquished a two-goal advantage on the opening day.
After the St Johnstone game, many were concerned about how long it would take for the new arrivals (particularly the defenders) to gel with the rest of the squad. Yesterday’s win, therefore, is indicative of just how much the team has improved as a unit in the short space of time since then. It is also testament to the younger players in the squad (many of whom were involved in that nightmare turnaround in the Highlands two years ago) and how far they have come in that time, a fact not lost on Robbie Neilson:
“The foreign guys coming in know how to manage a game — the younger Scottish boys are starting to pick that up as well, how to win a game. You don’t always have to win it by playing wonderful football; at times you have to win it by managing it properly.”
The added significance of the win against Ross County, aside from consolidating Hearts’ position at the top of the table, is that it represents the club’s best start to a top flight season since the opening weeks of George Burley’s tenure, a stat that has drawn wholly inappropriate media comparisons between the current squad and the Class of 2006, something Neilson himself was keen to play down:
“ That team had a Champions League winner, a European Championships winner and just about every player in the team was a full international. We are miles away from that and we know that ourselves. We are not going to invite comparisons with a team like that after three games. Three games is nothing — we have 35 to go. Any club that wins three games in a row, people will start to get excited.”
Indeed they will. Hearts fans in particular have a notorious knack of getting carried away at times like these and while the opening weeks of our Premiership return have been better than we could have hoped for, some supporters would do well to ignore the media hype and temper their expectations somewhat. Of course, there are a few more winnable games to come in the near future, and the longer this run continues the better.
Having said that, there will undoubtedly be dips in form like there were last year and, with a better quality of opponent to negotiate every week, more chance of being punished during those periods. Since administration and relegation, there has been a real siege mentality among the supporters which has manifested itself in impressive season ticket sales and an all-round togetherness in the stands. However, if the overblown reactions to a couple of meaningless post-clinching-of-title defeats last season are anything to go by, there is definitely a fickleness in some supporters that threatens to boil over during more testing times.
One would hope that when those times come over the course of this season (and they will) the crowds continue to provide the backing that is so frequently lauded by the players and management as a driving factor in their performances, as Prince Buaben noted following the comeback against Dundee:
“The supporters are such a big part of this club. They are always supporting us and they were very good to us at Dundee. At half-time, instead of booing us they were actually applauding us off even though we hadn’t played well. That’s what you want. If the fans boo you it just brings the players’ heads down and makes it harder. But our fans cheered us when we were heading to the dressing-room and that gave us a real lift. It was amazing.”
Given Buaben’s win percentage in the first team, he perhaps hasn’t sampled the more impatient side of the Hearts support. If the players replicate their recent performances more often than not this season, he might not have to.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on August 16, 2015.