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Flight of Fancy

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Morning all! After a turgid couple of weeks, my original aim was to open this week’s piece by focusing on the team’s return to winning ways. However, it’s not every day you see a plane flying over Tynecastle with a banner calling for the removal of a man who had only recently become the quickest Hearts manager to reach 50 league victories: a bizarre protest which, in the context of the past week, had arguably lost its meaning even before the pilot entered the cockpit.

Allegedly pencilled in for last weekend’s Kilmarnock game in response to our defeats against Hibs and Dundee United, the stunt was seemingly put back a week due to a lack of funds, by which point Robbie Neilson had signed a new two-year contract and the team had registered two wins in a row.

I can’t speak for the orchestrators themselves, but if they were still confident their message would resonate with fellow supporters at the Partick game on Saturday, those hopes were surely extinguished when the crowd responded by chanting Neilson’s name before Arnaud Djoum’s 25th-minute header sealed our third win in a row.

While I believe such a publicity stunt shouldn’t be given any more coverage than it already has, it’s hard to ignore the hilariously bad timing, amateur execution and lack of desired effect. On that basis, it deserves every ounce of public ridicule it gets. Neilson, meanwhile, seemed largely unperturbed by the incident:

“It doesn’t bother me, to be honest. It’s quite impressive that somebody has gone to that length. When you’re a football player or football coach, there’s always going to be an element that doesn’t take to you. That’s football and that’s life. It’s important we stay focused and keep doing the right things. I think the club is in a good place, heading in the right direction and I’m happy to be part of that.”

Of course, that isn’t to say the guys behind this protest aren’t entitled to their opinions; it just seems like an unnecessarily grandiose, expensive way to communicate a message that would’ve been given as much credence had they written it on a toilet wall in each other’s shit. Furthermore, if their brazenly repetitive, infantile conduct on social media since Saturday has been anything to go by, there is little chance of those opinions being channelled coherently, reasonably and effectively further down the line either.

For a lot of these guys, bad publicity is publicity nonetheless and they seem to thrive on it. While they may feel they’ve achieved something this weekend, the media spotlight will eventually move onto something else and they’ll be yesterday’s news. As the vast majority of rational Hearts fans move on, eagerly anticipating the next promising phase of our club’s journey, this tiny insignificant minority will be left out in the cold with only their A4 posters for comfort.

Anyway, that’s as much airtime as I’m willing to give a relatively minor stain on an otherwise positive week, which saw us strengthen our grip on third place and edge a little closer to Aberdeen in second. The games themselves certainly won’t be remembered as classics, but as is often the case in the more congested parts of the fixture list, pragmatism takes priority over panache and that certainly seemed to be the case last week. There is still room for improvement in a number of areas, most notably in the final third, however, when you’ve picked up maximum points from three games in seven days without conceding a single goal, it’s hard to be too critical. And besides, there were aspects of all three performances to take heart from as we enter the final stages of the season.

For starters, the clean sheets marked a turnaround in our defensive fortunes after a spell of frailty, which admittedly had not been helped by a spate of injuries and suspensions to various members of the backline. Although there were some characteristically nervy moments in the latter stages of the Kilmarnock game as we saw out the result, there was encouragement to be taken from the way the defence held firm when in previous weeks it would have caved under the pressure.

The confidence with which Liam Smith deputised at right back in his first two league starts against Inverness and Partick was reassuring ahead of Callum Paterson’s five-week injury layoff and the 19-year old looks set to make the most of what could be an extended run in the first team. Meanwhile, John Souttar’s standout performances in the centre of defence alongside Alim Ozturk have gone some way to justifying the six-figure sum paid to Dundee United for his services. Despite originally being brought in as a development project, Souttar has already featured in six of the seven games he’s been available for and looks very much at ease in his first-team surroundings, something the youngster attributes to the training regime at Riccarton:

“A big reason I came here was to learn and get better as a footballer. Every day, I’m learning stuff and improving as a player… I think it’s massive to have a club like Hearts believe in you… They put a lot of demands on you and they set standards. The training regime here is second to none. We’re working hard every day and it’s not luck that’s winning us these games, it’s hard work and that happens at Riccarton. I do feel a lot fitter, sharper and more confident.”

The effect of a more settled defence cannot be understated, especially when we appear to be struggling to score as often as we did earlier in the season. For what it’s worth, I actually thought we looked alright going forward last week, it’s just we seem to be lacking that crucial bit of composure and finesse to put chances away. The Kilmarnock game was particularly emblematic in that sense, considering the amount of time we spent in their half to emerge with only one goal (itself a rebound from a missed penalty).

However, when you see the kind of chances we missed, it could be argued that on a better day, with a little more luck or composure in front of goal (or against a less immortal keeper than Jamie MacDonald) we would have romped that game 5–0. Earlier in the season, opponents would arguably have punished this sort of profligacy and left Tynecastle with a draw; that Neil Alexander had only a few notable saves to make in the last three games is a testament, therefore, to the defensive improvements being made.

Unfortunately, the defence won’t always be able to compensate for a shortage of goals scored and a new striker or two will almost certainly be a priority over the summer if we’re to make similar improvements at the other end of the pitch. Although some of our missed chances last week were simply down to good goalkeeping and worse luck, we seem to be experiencing somewhat of a post-Osman Sow hangover right now, relying heavily on Jamie Walker’s goal-scoring form while Juanma and Abiola Dauda struggle to find theirs. The former’s miss against Kilmarnock when one-on-one with MacDonald, for example, was particularly astonishing when you consider his first two goals at Tynecastle came from similar positions, the second of which was a sublime chip over the on-rushing keeper.

The Spaniard has, for some time now, been a shell of that player we saw earlier in the season, his increasing hesitation and petulance pointing to a crisis of confidence that shows no signs of disappearing any time soon. With the management having shown in the past that they’re willing to cut ties with players in the interests of longer-term improvement, a misfiring Juanma may find it hard to remain in the picture next season. Saturday’s trip to Dens Park (one ground that bore witness to his undoubted ability when he scored twice back in August) may be a timely opportunity for the striker to rediscover his mojo.

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

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