Hearts a mess after Inveress?
Unlike a large proportion of patients in the Kickback asylum, I made a conscious effort to avoid social media after 9.30pm on Friday night, opting instead to let the effects of alcohol and a half-pizza supper subside before sitting down to pen my thoughts on the defeat to Inverness.
Before I discuss the completely overblown reaction to the result, it is worth pointing out that even with a clearer head I can still surmise that Friday night’s performance was woeful; as bad as those we grew accustomed to during the dark winter days under Gary Locke and certainly the worst we’ve seen so far in Robbie Neilson’s tenure.
Considering how low on confidence Inverness must have been prior to this encounter (having failed to register a win in their first six games), the caution with which Neilson approached the game was bewildering and only served to play into the Inverness players’ hands as the game wore on. For a group of players who have spent over a year slicing opposition defences open at will, it was alarming to see them finish a game without registering a single shot on target.
Much of the post-match discussion centred on Robbie Neilson’s team selection, which many felt was the direct cause of such an abject display in the final third. In fairness to Neilson, it seems as though his hand was forced by circumstances outwith his control, a family bereavement and a knee injury keeping Morgaro Gomis and Jamie Walker out of the starting line-up respectively. With Gomis absent and Miguel Pallardo still struggling with his own injury problems, Sean McKirdy presented the only viable option for the deep-lying midfield role when he would otherwise have started on the bench.
With Walker only fit enough to play a late cameo role in Friday’s game, Neilson could also be forgiven for placing his faith in new signing Danny Swanson to fulfil the attacking midfield role. What is more perplexing, however, is the insistence on using Osman Sow as a makeshift winger — which has proved ineffective more often than not in the past — while a player with a proven creative track record like Billy King sits on the sidelines. Sow has generally been more of a threat as a striker during his time at Hearts and with Juanma floundering up front on his own on Friday, the big Swede’s skills may have been put to better use in a team crying out for more presence in attack.
The attacking potency we have witnessed on a weekly basis would certainly suggest Friday night was a rare blip for the players in question. However, the ropey defending which has punctuated the opening seven games is less forgivable and needs addressed as a matter of urgency before the Aberdeen and Celtic double-header. Alim Ozturk spoke on Thursday about his long-term ambition to break into Turkey’s national set-up, although having marshalled a back line that allowed Inverness to score from two identically tame balls across the six-yard box, it is a dream that is far from becoming a reality for our young captain.
While long-term ambition should be applauded in young players, comments about international aspirations look rather misguided from a player whose performances at club level have been so questionable lately. Of course, the entire Hearts defence has been out of sorts since the season began and it would be unfair to single Ozturk out for criticism, especially when there are doubts over his fitness levels. However, his comments are symptomatic of a problem the club currently faces in curbing the enthusiasm of players and supporters alike after making such a positive start to the Premiership campaign.
Juwon Oshaniwa, for example, was only a week into the job before hitting the headlines with his declarations about chickens, picnics and challenging Celtic for the title. While most level-headed supporters (and his more senior team-mates like Neil Alexander) took the eccentric Nigerian’s comments with the required pinch of salt, there is definitely a section of supporters who have seen the headlines and allowed their imaginations to run wild, setting their expectations accordingly.
It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, to see those supporters react so badly to the team’s current dip in form. Over the past year, we have been spoilt with attractive football and dominant wins to such an extent that some supporters have forgotten what defeat feels like. Having also made the strongest start to a top flight season since the halcyon days of George Burley, the exuberance was unlikely to fade easily, particularly with premature talk of title challenges warping impressionable minds. Notwithstanding occasional over-excited statements from individual players, however, the party line has been the same from day one and Neilson was keen to stress this in his post-match comments.
“We need to be realistic here. We’re a Championship team that got promoted in the summer. We had a great start to the season but the priority is to get into the top six. That’s where we hope to be. We were playing against an Inverness team that finished third and won the Scottish Cup. At home, they’re a decent team. We can’t expect just to turn up and pick up three points. Realistically, that’s where we are. We won’t get carried away.”
Football supporters are by their nature a fickle, impatient breed with short memories and Hearts supporters are no different in this respect, particularly when reminded of how the club recently flirted with extinction. Unfortunately, some supporters find themselves too caught up in the short-term disappointment of a defeat to take the bigger picture seriously, responding to those reminders with facetious, mocking comments. The darker days of two years ago are a distant, trivial memory for them.
Meanwhile, others talk of how “this is Neilson’s first big test as manager” as if the opening five games of the season were routine wins; as if the Premiership season as a whole is not a test for a rookie manager with only a season’s experience; as if that initial season — and the convincing title win that came with it — was simply a formality. Up until the past couple of weeks, there has been very little for the critics to level at Neilson. It is only when there is a hint of difficulty that people start referring to “proper tests” and picking holes in every aspect of a regime they had no problem with when everything was rosy.
Granted, this is uncharted territory for Neilson, coping with two defeats on the bounce for the first time in his reign. The timing could not be worse either, with two tougher league games on the horizon and a backline to re-organise ahead of Aberdeen’s visit to Tynecastle on Sunday, following confirmation of Oshaniwa’s two-game ban for his petulant swipe at Inverness’ Tobi Sho-Silva. Like many of his players, Neilson is still finding his feet in tougher surroundings but having made as positive a start as most fans could have hoped for there is nothing to suggest he is incapable of learning from experience and overcoming the challenges ahead, of which there will be many. Some would do well to get used to that.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on September 15, 2015.