Morning all and Happy Easter (apologies for the ill-advised egg pun). With arguably the most pointless international break in full swing, now seems as good a time as any to take stock of our recent on-pitch activity at club level. Normally such an interlull would elicit an anguished groan, but given how the team played against St Johnstone last weekend, I’m inclined to see this as a blessing in disguise and an opportunity for the players responsible to stew over their collective and individual shortcomings.
There’s no point in sugar-coating it: Saturday was undoubtedly the worst we’ve played all season which, by default, makes it the worst we’ve played during Robbie Neilson’s time in charge. An unexpected fall from grace after the impressive four-game unbeaten run that came before it, with the win over Dundee widely regarded as one of the team’s best performances so far.
One of the defining characteristics of this season has been our ability to hammer teams by the narrowest of margins and the 1–0 victory at Dens was the archetypal example of that given the number of chances we created (even if the Sportscene highlights at the time suggested otherwise). Our inability to convert those chances, however, has been a frequent talking point this season and seems to have been exacerbated further by the Osman Sow-shaped hole that our remaining strikers have struggled to fill since January.
Thankfully we have Jamie Walker, whose goal-scoring exploits since returning from injury have carried us over the line on a few occasions in the past couple of months and left a lot of fans bemused as to why he wasn’t included in either of Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squads for this weekend’s friendlies. There are, of course, many aspects of Strachan’s recent selection policy that I could sit here and poke holes in, but admittedly Walker’s absence is not one of them.
Considering his sketchy injury record this season and the fact he has only just managed to complete a consistent run of games at first-team level, this international break was always going to be too early for him. The fact he is even in the conversation, however, is certainly a positive sign and as Robbie Neilson put it, gives him something to aim for in the summer:
“It’s maybe the timing of it. He’s had a good seven games but seven games doesn’t make a season. He still has to keep working and doing it consistently. The timing of his injury and his comeback haven’t done him any favours for the international scene. There are friendlies at the end of May and early June. If he keeps playing like this, I think he’ll be in Gordon’s thoughts.”
Unfortunately, not even a resurgent Jamie Walker could save us from the demolition job that followed at the hands of St Johnstone. What made that result all the more frustrating was that, as far as second place is concerned, we essentially let Aberdeen off the hook for their loss against Motherwell, which has always seemed like a quintessentially Hearts brand of generosity.
Whether intentionally or under journalistic duress, the players and management have been quoted numerous times this season about challenging the top two, but that kind of talk always seems to have preceded a dip or a missed opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, this season has definitely exceeded the expectations of most reasonable Hearts supporters and the team is heading in the right direction, but what Saturday and other slip-ups this season have demonstrated is that the players and management are still some distance from the place they harbour ambitions of reaching. As Robbie Neilson put it after the game:
“We need to be realistic about where we are. We were playing against a team with a lot of experience. The vast majority of St Johnstone’s team are 29 or 30, with 200 and 300 games for their club. For us, it’s about trying to get experience into the players when they’re young and I think Saturday will actually help them. There are a lot of things to learn.”
These comments have, however, provoked considerable disdain from some supporters who believe Neilson’s team selection was more blameworthy than the players’ inexperience, and that the head coach is making a habit of side-stepping the blame for lacklustre displays. Personally, I think those accusations are unfair. Team selection for Saturday was largely dictated by circumstances beyond his control, namely the injury to Alim Ozturk — which necessitated the inclusion of Blazej Augustyn — and Prince Buaben’s fitness falling short of 100%. I would also argue that his decision to drop Sam Nicholson to the bench was perfectly reasonable considering how much the winger’s performances have dipped in recent weeks. Taking all of that into account, I think it’s entirely fair to assume that Neilson fielded the best eleven that was available to him.
Calls for him to apologise or accept responsibility for the defeat, therefore, are a little overblown and fail to acknowledge the reality that a lot of the players simply failed to turn up on the day. John Souttar, for example, has been one of the standout performers in recent weeks and yet was largely to blame for St Johnstone’s first two goals after allowing Murray Davidson the freedom of the box.
It happens. Players occasionally underperform; younger players can be inconsistent. It’s not necessarily something that calls for the head coach to shoulder full responsibility, particularly when the team has registered four wins in a row and clean sheets in each. That isn’t to say Neilson’s decisions will always be immune from scrutiny, but I’m more inclined to reserve that for the day our winning streaks turn into winless ones, should that unfortunate scenario develop at a later date.
While it may have been difficult to draw positives from the St Johnstone game, there was solace to be taken from the weekend’s other results, which further demonstrated that the Premiership is a league in which pretty much any team can beat the other; only seven points now separate six clubs fighting for the last three spots in the top half. By contrast, the fact that we still sit comfortably in third place with a 13-point gap and a game in hand suggests we’ve been pretty far-removed from that dog-eat-dog situation below us for most of the season, which itself is a remarkable achievement.
Last Saturday was certainly dire and nobody hopes to see a repeat of that, but by the same token, it’s probably only the third time in our 30 league games so far where we’ve been comprehensively beaten without the influence of red cards or rogue handballs. A blip (albeit a spectacular blip) but nothing more than that. In the meantime, the hope will be that our five representatives in the Scotland U21 squad return injury-free and ready to make amends in what will be a testing run of games before the split.
Thanks for reading. Enjoy the rest of your Easter weekend.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on March 27, 2016.