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Crackers and Turkeys

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Crackers and Turkeys

Happy New Year everyone. Hope you all had a delightful time during the festive period. A combination of work, last-minute shopping, food comas, healthy yuletide alcoholism and seasonal socialising with friends and family has curtailed my writing over the past few weeks but now seems as good a time as any to reflect back on the festive period from a footballing perspective.

From a Hearts-supporting point of view, it was a bit of a mixed stocking. There were no disappointing lumps of coal to be found but it was by no means the kind of festive period that provoked giddy child-like excitement from the Hearts faithful. In short, it was the footballing equivalent of a Lynx Africa gift set: you can still use it but it does little to inspire. While there were certainly a few Christmas crackers in that time, there were some who better represented the part of the nativity donkey.

The main positive, first and foremost, is we didn’t lose any of our four festive matches. After the potentially morale-draining, last-minute unorthodox nature of the defeat to Aberdeen, the prospect of an away trip to McDiarmid Park and a home game against Celtic seemed unlikely to muster any Christmas cheer. A point from each fixture, therefore, was a decent outcome given the circumstances of each game.

The St Johnstone game was always going to be a tough one, considering the Perth side’s form in the preceding weeks, though the task was made considerably more testing by Juanma’s dismissal in the first half. Only thanks to the goalkeeping heroics of Neil Alexander, a sturdy defence and a missed penalty were we able to weather the storm and escape with a point, while keeping St Johnstone at bay in fourth.

Of course, there will be few Hearts fans who haven’t at some stage dreamt of sticking the nut on an ex-Hibs player of David Wotherspoon’s ilk, but the Spaniard’s decision to make this a reality was ill-advised to say the least. Was it surprising? Possibly not. If anything, it was the climax to weeks of simmering frustration and petulance that had already seen him register nine yellow cards and a previous ban for crossing the disciplinary point threshold.

Whether it’s a personality issue or something instigated by what the player perceives to be harsh treatment by referees and opposition players, if he is going to make the most of his undoubted talent and succeed in Scotland, he needs to rise above it. Without a swift change in his temperament, he’ll simply continue to be an easy target for opponents and an increasing liability to his own team, something Robbie Neilson has been keen to communicate to his striker:

“He realises that whoever he plays against is going to target him. Referees will be looking for that, we’ll be looking for that, so it’s important he accepts it and handles it…hopefully he does it with his feet by scoring goals, not getting involved and doing silly things. We spoke to him recently and showed him videos of some of the stuff he has been involved in recently. When he actually sat down and looked at it I think now he realises he needs to cut it out.”

Although Juanma’s subsequent two-match ban seemed less than ideal at the time, especially with Celtic arriving in Edinburgh the following week, it paved the way for Gavin Reilly to become the surprise success story of December. I say “surprise” because only now does it seem to be dawning on some supporters that Reilly is a player with a lot of promise. In his handful of appearances before the Celtic game (many of which were played out of position or from the subs bench) the former Queen of the South man found himself written off by the keyboard critics, many of whom were still clutching tear-stained photos of James Keatings.

As disappointed as I was to see Keatings leave and as much as I still believe he would have been a decent squad player for us in the Premiership, there is little doubt in my mind that we have a better prospect in our ranks today. Brought in to partner Osman Sow up front against the league leaders in Juanma’s absence, Reilly put in a man-of-the-match performance and was unfortunate not to be rewarded for his tireless efforts with a goal (although he reaped the benefits with two in the following two games).

Granted, Celtic are no great shakes and Sow’s outrageous last minute equaliser was the very least we deserved from an evenly-matched encounter. Nevertheless, this was as big a league game as Reilly has played in so far and his constant harrying of Boyata, Ambrose and co was a far cry from Keatings’ comparatively meek showings in the ‘bigger’ matches last season against weaker Rangers and Hibs sides. On that basis, I believe Reilly has shown he can adapt to top flight football and has now earned the right to be judged on his own merits without needless comparisons to a player who is still playing in the Championship.

As pleasing as it was to see Reilly find form in front of goal against Dundee United and Killie, however, the games themselves were underwhelming to say the least. Having gone into the second half against United with a man advantage after Mark Durnan’s red card, there were several missed opportunities to put the result beyond doubt. Instead, the final turgid stages were spent seeing out the single-goal lead. When you haven’t won in six games, the three points clearly take priority over the actual performance but the struggle to see out games is an issue that has reared its head a few times this season already. Although we flirted with that issue and escaped unscathed against a United side all but destined for the Championship, Kilmarnock were less forgiving. As Gavin Reilly summed up:

“When we went 2–1 up, we battered Kilmarnock for about ten minutes but we never got another goal and we were always a bit scared they might go and get one back. That’s what happened when the corner came in. They are a big, physical team and ended up scoring. I still thought we should have taken three points.”

Although we didn’t lose any of the four matches, it was still frustrating that our return to winning ways was so brief, and equally so to now have dropped four points against a team that looks likely to join United in the relegation mire at the end of the season. It seems crazy to complain considering we’ve emerged from this spell still third in the league — which in the grand scheme of things is a brilliant achievement for the club — but there is a nagging feeling that some of these draws could easily have been wins if we had taken our chances. Instead, we seem to be getting into the habit of restoring the belief of struggling teams. When you consider we faced the likes of Dundee, Motherwell and Kilmarnock when those teams were in poor form, you can understand why supporters are disappointed.

A lot of that disappointment has also been directed at particular players in the past few weeks, with Juwon Oshaniwa the main focus of attention. I tweeted before the St Johnstone game that I believed Neilson would keep his faith in Jordan McGhee after his mistake against Aberdeen but this proved not to be the case when Oshaniwa was brought back into the starting eleven.

At the time I had no gripes with that, as I saw this as a hard-line approach by the head coach towards mistakes in order to keep the current starters on their toes. I also understand the need for consistency at the back, but considering how swiftly McGhee was dropped for one mistake — despite being fairly solid the rest of the time — it isn’t unreasonable to question why Oshaniwa has been treated more leniently after a string of shaky performances over Christmas. Neilson, however, was eager to lift the pressure from the Nigerian:

“He is a good player. He has pace and quality and good power. He is just finding it a bit difficult to adapt at the moment, similar to Juanma. He is not used to playing on a pitch where it has been battering down with rain for three weeks. It is just about being patient. We are bringing these guys in to try and develop them. We don’t get players in that are finished articles. They need developed.”

Oshaniwa is by no means a bad footballer and we have seen glimpses of his ability. Unfortunately, there seems to be no middle ground to his performances which seem to register at either end of the “solid to shite” spectrum. While I wouldn’t expect Neilson to do anything other than support his players, it is hard to understand where the merit lies in persisting with a mistake-prone player at the expense of an academy product who has been arguably better in that position during the first half of the season, particularly when we are often told the long-term aim is to develop our own players. At present, I would argue that McGhee has more sell-on potential to nurture.

Having said that, I don’t see these players on a daily basis and Neilson is in a much better position to judge them. The jury may be out on some of our current players, but so far the recently-departed Kenny Anderson is this management team’s only recognised flop. In general, the players we have brought in have been largely pleasing, while those who departed over the summer have generally struggled elsewhere (with the exception of Keatings and Jason Holt).

As fickle football fans, we have a tendency to over-romanticise injured or departed players and our left back situation is a potent example of that. McGhee was widely (and in some respects justifiably) crucified online for his costly error at Pittodrie and many called for Oshaniwa, the more natural left-back, to be re-instated. Since then, not only has McGhee become flavour of the month once again, but there are even some who have decried the decision to release Kevin McHattie, a player who could barely put a foot right in some supporters’ eyes during his Hearts days and is now part of a dreadful Kilmarnock team.

Based on Neilson’s quote above, it looks as though Oshaniwa will continue at left back in this evening’s Scottish Cup tie against Aberdeen. If we are to progress into the next round, he (as well as the rest of his colleagues) will need to be a lot sharper than they have been against a team that (although not unbeatable) is far better-equipped to punish any sluggishness.

Fingers crossed. Enjoy the game!

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on January 9, 2016.

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