Ghee It Time
After the postponement of the Inverness game, a three-week period of fixtures against the teams closest to us in the league was perhaps not top of everyone’s Christmas wish list. The draws with Dundee and Motherwell, while extending Hearts’ unbeaten run to eight games, were disappointing results given the quality and form of the opposition at the time, and represented somewhat of a mini slump in our own form after a four-game winning streak from late October into early November.
By contrast, a draw against Aberdeen at Pittodrie in the first of our festive fixtures would have been more welcome in the circumstances. With three minutes left of Saturday’s game, it looked as though we were on course to achieve just that, until a moment of inexplicable madness from Jordan McGhee presented Adam Rooney with the chance to convert from the penalty spot and claim all three points for the hosts.
For McGhee, this will be seen as a coming of age moment and his first real test of mental strength as a first team player. The 19-year old has been pretty vocal in recent months about his desire to cement a regular starting position and was praised for his performances earlier in the season when given his chance. Although it would be unfair to overly lambast a player of his relative inexperience for one isolated mistake, I disagree with those who believe he is completely immune from criticism on the grounds of his tender years.
McGhee has enjoyed somewhat of a honeymoon period since breaking into the first team at only 16 years of age (a period that has attracted transfer bids from Championship clubs in England) but if he wishes to be considered a serious first teamer, that period must gradually come to an end and the next crucial stage in his development will be showing how he has learned from Saturday’s experience in the coming weeks. At the very least, the pressure of that task will have been eased somewhat by the measured and supportive reaction of his head coach when quizzed about the match-defining mistake.
“I thought he was outstanding today and he’s made one mistake and we’ve lost. I could sign a 30-year old to play left-back but that goes against what we want to do at the club. He won’t do that the next time a cross comes in. He’s a 19-year old kid, he knows what he did; he doesn’t need us to tell him that. The only way we’ll develop him is by supporting him. We can’t lambast every player who makes a mistake. We’ll continue to blood our youngsters and take the bad with the good.”
While we are unlikely to see a more bizarre blunder in the foreseeable future, it is worth noting that when the club’s long-term ambition is to develop our own players, there are going to be occasional brain farts along the way. What matters most is how youngsters like Jordan McGhee bounce back from their blunders and the kind of shrewd man management demonstrated by Neilson this weekend will be crucial to that process. On that basis, I fully expect McGhee to be included in the starting line-up for this weekend’s trip to Perth.
Although defeat in such extraordinary circumstances is never the easiest to digest, only the most partisan of Hearts supporters would deny that Aberdeen were worthy of the three points, having dominated for the majority of the ninety minutes only to be denied on numerous occasions by the inspired goalkeeping of Neil Alexander. Hearts are undoubtedly an improved side defensively since the last time the two sides met, and it was by no means a repeat of the merciless battering they gave us at Tynecastle in September.
However, in terms of general possession and attacking threat, there was still a noticeable gulf, with Aberdeen creating nearly twice as many chances throughout the game and restricting Hearts to only a couple of meaningful second-half efforts through Juanma and Callum Paterson. After a few weeks where it looked as though we were rediscovering some of our attacking prowess, the trip to Pittodrie seemed like a step back. Of course, there are days when it just doesn’t click — when you come up against a well-marshalled defence or find a goalkeeper in form — but with Hearts, the growing perception this season is that Robbie Neilson sets his team up too negatively for these bigger fixtures.
Personally, I think this assessment is unfair on Neilson, who seems to be on a hiding to nothing with some supporters. Had he set the team up to play a more open attacking game at Pittodrie, there is every chance Aberdeen — with the threat they possess on the counter — would have punished us like they did at Tynecastle. Instead, our defence looked far more assured than when the Dons ripped them apart in September and had it not been for the handball, a point away to one of the better sides in the league would have been seen as a positive result. No system or head coach could legislate for an error like McGhee’s but at least up until that point it looked as though Neilson had learned from mistakes made in the previous meeting, despite his critics suggesting otherwise.
Defensive football isn’t necessarily negative football. It may not be easy on the eye at times, but Neilson has demonstrated in the past that he can set the team up to play attractive football. Although this was at a lower level, to replicate that at a higher level takes a higher calibre of player, which is more difficult on our limited budget. As Neilson stated today:
“We’re a team that’s been promoted and, yes, we’ve got a big fan base and we’ve got a big club, but we aren’t pushing outwith our budget. We aren’t going to be a club that comes out and chucks money at things. Aberdeen have developed as a club over the last five or six years. You look at their accounts and our accounts and it’s night and day at the moment. Their playing budget last season was round about £6million. That’s a big sum of money and it’s a huge difference between them and us.”
As Neilson points out, Aberdeen’s development over the past few years is the kind of example Hearts are looking to follow, and despite our recent on-pitch success bringing the objectives forward slightly, it will take time to implement. Supporters were quick to praise the new regime when it announced the club’s intention to become self-sufficient and produce our own players, yet in practice people seem less keen on waiting for such a long-term project to bear fruit.
It is a confused set of principles, and although football is a results-driven business, what use is short-term glory if you don’t have a sustainable plan to succeed consistently for years to come? Some of the best teams in the world have been built thanks to the long-term vision of those in charge: Guardiola’s Barcelona and Ferguson’s Class of 92 the most notable examples, albeit on a much bigger scale than anything we will see at Hearts.
Of course, there are also clubs (particularly in the English Premier League) who can throw money at short-term problems thanks to the TV money available. In Scotland, that simply isn’t viable, as our own recent history dictates. It is worth nothing that, first season aside, the best we managed in the league during the Romanov era was third.
This season, we look on course to achieve that with a fraction of the budget and yet there are still those who believe anything less than second would represent a distinct underachievement for this side. I would be genuinely interested in knowing what yardstick that theory is based on, but the chances are it is simply reactive nonsense from those who lack the emotional intelligence to deal with defeat.
Saying that, third place itself is currently in the balance, with Saturday’s opponents St Johnstone only a point behind and breathing down our necks in fourth. That they haven’t overtaken us already is largely thanks to Celtic beating them on Sunday and only a positive result for Hearts in Perth will keep it that way beyond this weekend, with or without the use of negative tactics.
Until next time!
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on December 16, 2015.