Greetings on this sun-kissed Tuesday afternoon. Due to a multitude of reasons (a recent house move chief among them) my opportunities to sit down and reflect on the opening stages of our season have, up until this morning, been fairly limited. I have to confess that, prior to our league opener against Celtic, I was far less enthusiastic about the new season than I have been about previous seasons.
Take last summer for example, where there was the buzz of being back in the Premiership, or the year before, when Ann Budge’s takeover had generated renewed optimism ahead of our Championship campaign. Even in 2013, as Hearts were facing the daunting task of overturning a 15-point penalty, there was a siege mentality among the supporters that seemed to resonate with the players on the pitch (albeit for a brief spell during the opening few games).
This summer, however, was different. The unfortunate nature of our Europa League elimination at the hands of Birkirkara last month only served to heighten the sense of ill-feeling towards Robbie Neilson and his players, exacerbating the tension which had been reverberating around Tynecastle since January. A stadium well-known for its intimidating effect on opposition players was gradually turning on its own with every misplaced pass, instilling a nervousness in the team and creating a perpetual (albeit slightly overblown) gloom in the stands. From a personal point of view, therefore, it wasn’t so much the prospect of more underwhelming football that was tempering my excitement, it was the expectation that, without a respectable points return to show for our relatively tough opening fixtures, the tetchiness in the stands would continue from last season and define our new campaign before it was properly underway.
Those opening fixtures have now passed and we have one point from a possible six to show for them. For some of the more reactionary individuals in our support (or those who simply cannot bring themselves to find anything positive about Robbie Neilson and his team) this represents a worrying lack of progress. However, closer inspection of our performances should be enough to dispel any fears that the perceived negativity of last season is set to continue into the new campaign.
Against Celtic, Hearts immediately sought to pin the visitors back in their own half from kick-off, a game plan that they sustained for the vast majority of the match. It was as positive a performance as we have seen from Hearts in a number of months, even if the final result failed to reflect the players’ commendable efforts. No defeat to Celtic is ever easy to take, but they tend to come in two distinct categories — either we get completely outclassed and lose by a significant margin (and reluctantly accept that we’ve been beaten by the better side) or we turn in a spirited performance and come out feeling aggrieved by the result.
Having not beaten Celtic since 2012, most of the defeats since then have fallen into the former category. In fact, the last time I can remember coming out of a defeat to Celtic feeling as though we deserved more from the game was in 2006, when a controversial Takis Fyssas red card allowed them to overturn our 2–1 lead and win 3–2, effectively derailing any remaining hopes we had of winning the title. Last Sunday’s result was just as crushing in the immediate aftermath but there was enough to inspire optimism for the rest of the season.
Of course, part of our remit as Hearts fans is to always be prepared to have our optimism tested at regular intervals, so if the spirited nature of our performance against Celtic had begun to lift spirits after our Europa League exit, Wednesday’s League Cup defeat will have provided another dose of early-season depression. Having fought back from 1–0 down to take a 2–1 lead into the half-time, it seemed as though we were on course for the kind of result we felt we’d deserved a few days before.
I wasn’t at the game myself, but the online comments and reports I have read from the more measured members of the Hearts support suggested we had performed well for the most part and that a brief spell of self-destruction brought about by individual errors let St Johnstone back into it. On that basis, the 3–2 defeat was even harder to swallow than the one that came before it (and that’s before you factor in Danny Swanson and Brad McKay’s respective contributions to our downfall).
Nevertheless, it’s not so catastrophic as to wipe out all hope for the rest of the season, Okay, we’re out of two cup competitions before the end of August. It’s far from ideal. However, one of the other parts of our aforementioned remit as Hearts fans is a reluctant acknowledgement of our dismal League Cup record and to be prepared for the continuation of that every season. Considering we’ve been eliminated from the same competition by the likes of Airdrie, Ayr and then-First Division Ross County during my lifetime, it’s not as though it’s a recent problem that suddenly came about thanks to the current management team. Does that make the prospect of a Hibernian-esque wait for cup glory acceptable? No, but in the isolated context of this season it should at least make it more bearable.
What was important after that disappointment was to ensure we came back stronger against Aberdeen and to avoid the prospect of four straight defeats. In Michael Stewart’s latest red-top ramblings, he claimed that Hearts’ performance at Pittodrie showed them up as a team short of confidence. As a player who regularly lost the plot when his teams were up against it, Stewart’s insight into the psychology of your average footballer is perhaps not the most reliable, even less so when his articles are laced with his well-documented anti-Craig Levein agenda.
A team that short of confidence, off the back of three straight morale-sapping defeats in different competitions, would have crumbled at the prospect of facing Aberdeen. Instead, we dug in, avoided the silly defensive mistakes that cost us in recent matches and came away with not only a hard-earned point but a clean sheet to boot.
Furthermore, it seems as though Neilson is becoming more hard-line with underperforming players and holding them to account when necessary, something he has been less inclined to do in the past couple of seasons. Juanma has already been told under no uncertain terms that he’ll be out the door if he doesn’t up his work rate in training, while Alim Ozturk learned that his captaincy affords him no special protection, having been dropped to the bench on Saturday for his part in the Perth collapse. Speaking after the game on Saturday, Neilson explained his decision:
“I just felt we needed a change in there. After losing three goals at McDiarmid Park, we had to do something. You can’t just accept the way it went, so I had to change the back four. The ones that played at Aberdeen worked hard and got us a clean sheet, so it’s up to Alim now to fight to get back in because he’s one of our key players.”
Considering how often the head coach is castigated for “tinkering”, the decision to drop his captain deserves credit, especially when it led to stronger performances from John Souttar and Igor Rossi. If that kind of approach can inspire more consistent form from those in the starting line-up, it can only be a good thing.
So if our performances have generally been positive in recent weeks, what has stopped us from taking the rewards available? Firstly, we could have been more streetwise in certain situations. Although the Aberdeen game has since shown signs of defensive improvements, we need to know when to keep our discipline and when to pick up the odd tactical booking. For example, diving in rashly inside our own box when 2–1 up with 20 minutes to go in a cup tie is generally not advisable; bringing down Leigh Griffiths on the counter-attack before he can cross for Celtic’s match-winning goal, on the other hand, is.
Secondly, our strikers — despite showing very promising signs — still have a bit of rust to shake off. With Tony Watt in particular, this was always to be expected, considering he only completed his first full 90 minutes in about four months on Saturday. Nevertheless, his first touch and positioning have been encouraging enough to suggest there is plenty more to come from him during his season-long loan spell. Commenting on Watt’s missed chance in the latter stages of Saturday’s contest, Neilson was eager to find the positives:
“It was great ball in to him from Conor and then he does well to create space, but he’s just off balance when he hits it. You can see the spark he gives us. He’s something different, he’s got great quality…I think we are still to see the best of him. When we do that, I’m sure he’ll score loads of goals.”
Alongside Watt, Conor Sammon (having already experienced the brunt of the boo-boys in his first couple of months at the club) has been putting in equally-admirable shifts, doing the kind of dirty unselfish work we saw Gavin Reilly do during his purple patch last season, albeit with greater physicality. In fact, if his touch hadn’t let him down so badly at one point in the second half against Celtic, he may have got the goal his work rate merited. Considering missed opportunities of that kind a few weeks ago would have brought the wrath of Tynecastle down on Sammon, the generally positive reception he got when subbed against Celtic was a telling sign of how much the supporters appreciated his overall contribution, even if he doesn’t look like the 20-goal-a-season striker some Hearts fans want him to be. However, once the Sammon-Watt partnership clicks, I have the utmost faith that we will see visible rewards.
So there you go! For anyone in need of an early-season pick-me-up, I hope I’ve been able to eke out some of the positives. There have certainly been enough in our opening games to suggest that this will still be a good season: we just need that first win to get us going. A home game against an under-par Inverness side this Saturday seems like an ideal time to start.
Until next time!
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on August 16, 2016.