Happy Sunday folks! Despite my gut feeling that Thursday night’s game wasn’t going to be the “walk in the park against an Eastern European pub team” that many of my fellow Jambos were anticipating, it didn’t stop me from popping into the bookies en route to Tynecastle and sticking money on a 3–0 win for Hearts. Maybe it was the brazen optimist inside me taking over; maybe it was just the giddy new season buzz clouding my capacity to think rationally, or maybe it was just a simmering gambling addiction. In hindsight, however, it was most certainly misguided, with a rusty-looking Hearts side fortunate enough to take a 2–1 lead into next week’s return leg in Tallinn.
The usual reactionary individuals who booed at full-time and have been firing up their laptops to express outrage since Thursday will no doubt disagree with me on the point I’m about to make, but if most reasonable supporters were being brutally honest with themselves, a performance as tired and laboured as that was always a distinct probability. Having only been back in pre-season training for a couple of weeks, a lot of the Hearts players looked like they were still sweating out toxins from their summer jollies in Magaluf and at times struggled to match the energy levels of an Infonet side with half a season of competitive football in the tank. Speaking after the game, Robbie Neilson addressed the fitness issue:
The fitness and sharpness came into it because we didn’t move the ball quick enough. We didn’t get into the areas we wanted to often enough. These games are always difficult. They have good players who have played at decent levels so we knew it would be tough. We’ve got a lot of guys who haven’t played any European football. The fitness aspect made it twice as hard. We looked rusty in the first half an hour. My concern was it was really open at the start.
That openness, having presented the visitors with a couple of chances early on, eventually led to their goal, an acrobatic volley from Jevgeni Harin after Hearts invited space on their left wing and failed to deal with a routine cross. Up until that point, the impatience that was so palpable at times last season had been slowly emanating from the stands and onto the pitch as Hearts searched in vain for a way through the Estonians’ stubborn defence, and only got worse as the need for an equaliser became more pressing. Thankfully, that tension was momentarily lifted when, only seven minutes after taking the lead, Infonet were penalised for a handball in their box, allowing Prince Buaben to convert from the spot.
Considering such incidents are ten a penny in games these days and generally go unpunished, Infonet will no doubt have felt aggrieved by the decision, however in the circumstances, Hearts needed whatever scraps they could find to restore parity. Having lost their kit on one of several flights they’d taken to reach Edinburgh, Infonet had been forced to borrow Hearts training gear the previous day and were perhaps feeling grateful to their hosts for helping them out in their time of need. The penalty seemed like fair recompense, yet only eight minutes later they gifted us another goal. Not content with burdening a Hearts player with the responsibility of hitting the net (and let’s be honest, given our recent attacking impotence it’s just as well they didn’t) Infonet’s captain Andrei Kalimullin kindly bundled Callum Paterson’s cutback into his own goal. Despite doing very little to earn it, Hearts led at the break.
Any notion that the lead would ease tension in the stands evaporated in the second half as Hearts implemented the same attrition warfare that sections of Tynecastle had grown impatient with towards the end of last season. Unfortunately, against a well-drilled defence, with attackers rebuilding fitness and new signings still to gel with their team-mates, such an approach never looked like getting us the all-important third goal we needed to make the return leg more comfortable. As a result, most of our shots on goal were frustrated, wayward long-range efforts. Speaking of Callum Paterson…
When Robbie Neilson set out on his first recruitment drive back in the summer of 2014, he spoke a great deal about recruiting the right characters for the dressing room, players who demonstrated professionalism on and off the pitch and who would set an example to the younger players already at the club. While I have no reason to believe the person spec has changed since then, it certainly seems to have bypassed our young right back, who spent most of Thursday night conducting himself like a toddler who’d been told he wasn’t getting any pudding.
Paterson has always been a temperamental player but during the Championship campaign and the earlier stages of last season it looked as though he was channelling it in the right ways for the benefit of the team. In recent months, however, his attitude has had a touch of the Michael Stewarts about it and is becoming more noticeable from the stands. Sarcastically applauding a team-mate’s misplaced pass as he did on Thursday night, for example, would be unacceptable behaviour from a player at any level, let alone a professional. Paterson is clearly a very talented player and has the potential to be even better, but judging by the way he acts towards his teammates during games, there is clearly a growing ego problem that needs addressed before it escalates beyond repair and causes disharmony in the squad. After all, one Scotland cap does not a player make.
On a more positive note, it was good to see Billy King making a 25-minute cameo after returning from his loan move to Ibrox, an exercise that was largely unproductive for everyone concerned. Unproductive for King who, having spoken of his desire to play more first team football, started fewer than half of the Rangers games he was eligible for, and unproductive for Hearts, who could really have done with an extra winger as cover for Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker.
While Walker struggled to make a full recovery from a persistent knee injury, Nicholson’s form waned massively in the second half of last season, where he featured in every game that followed King’s departure. The lack of a suitable backup in his position during that spell will almost certainly have contributed to some degree of burnout and the hope, therefore, is that King’s return will offer scope for squad rotation and greater freshness in the wide areas over the coming season.
As far as our hopes of progressing to the second Europa League qualifying round are concerned, history certainly isn’t on our side if the below tweet by @SPLstats is anything to go by.
If Hearts are to buck that unfortunate trend, therefore, an away goal of their own is absolutely crucial, a reality not lost on new striker Conor Sammon:
When you are 2–1 up in a European tie, it’s a precarious lead. If they win 1–0, it’s game over. We can’t go into the second leg thinking we need to sit in and defend. That would be foolish. I think we do need to score. We have to keep working on the training pitch on how to get in behind and create opportunities when a game is very tight. I’m sure they’ll be a bit more attacking over there. That can play into our hands if we defend and break sharply.
Our return to competitive European football may not have been the spectacular whitewash we were perhaps all secretly hoping for, but the reaction at the final whistle was entirely unbefitting of an occasion we never imagined we’d see again three years ago. Much of the frustration towards the end of last season stemmed from the style of football Neilson was setting us up to play and Thursday’s performance seems to have done little to alleviate some of those concerns for a lot of fans.
While I agree that the football became increasingly turgid after January, I believe there were mitigating circumstances that affected our performances (the sudden departure of Osman Sow and our tiring wide men chief among those). However, when you consider that Thursday’s game came earlier than your average pre-season friendly, I don’t believe it’s fair to condemn that performance as a natural continuation of last season’s problems. On the contrary, with greater preparation and fitness, I believe there are stronger, more fluent performances on the horizon. Whether that’s enough to appease some of the critics is anyone’s guess.
Anyway, that’s all for today. Enjoy what’s left of your weekend!
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on July 3, 2016.