Opening Day Optimism v2018.19
Morning all. It’s a rare occasion when a trip to Hamilton fills you with anything other than a sense of foreboding, but the first league game of the season is only a matter of hours away and, following successful passage into the Betfred Cup knockout stages, there’s enough for Hearts fans to be enthusiastic about without dwelling too much on their opening day destination.
Since the introduction of a preliminary group stage to the League Cup two summers ago, pre-season in Scotland has taken on an entirely different character. There’s something about the new format that injects an extra degree of jeopardy into proceedings, particularly for the top flight sides.
For a little over an hour last Saturday, I sat among anxious Motherwell fans in a windswept Broadwood as their team stared an ignominious group stage elimination in the face, before coming back from a goal down to defeat Clyde (for the record, this was for my future brother-in-law’s stag-do and was largely the cause of the cold I’m now harbouring). Moments before Danny Johnson put them 2–1 up, Motherwell were a mere 11 minutes from crashing out of the same cup competition in which they had contested the final only eight months previously, all before the league season had even started.
The repercussions of failure before that first league game can take a while to shake off. As Hearts fans, we need only travel back a year to remind ourselves of how a catastrophic league cup campaign can derail the team’s momentum and curdle supporters’ early-season optimism. Motherwell narrowly avoided that potential ordeal, as did Dundee and St Mirren, who scraped through as two of the better second-placed teams despite shaky outings against lower league opposition. Hamilton were less fortunate and — as the only Premiership side who failed to make the knockout stages — will have done little to convince their fans and others that the upcoming season will be anything more than a relegation scrap for them.
Although the games themselves are dressed in pre-season clothes (low attendances, laboured performances against typically weaker teams) the Betfred Cup group stage has proven to be a minefield for Premiership sides since its inception. Supporters often see success in these fixtures as a given — “well of course we should be beating these teams” — and I get that. The big guns should be beating the part-timers, but we’ve seen plenty struggle to do so with the consummate ease people expect, as evidenced by the fact that, of all the top flight teams involved in this season’s groups, not one recorded a clean sweep of victories. For that reason, I’m not convinced the standard of Cowdenbeath or Inverness should be a reason to temper any optimism we might have garnered from the victories we recorded against them.
Squad rebuilds have become somewhat of an annual practice since we were promoted and the upheaval caused by that level of squad turnover (itself a by-product of managerial changes) has been reflected in our last two league placings. Of all the teams to have finished above us last season, only Rangers could be considered just as unstable in the personnel department — and even then, their solution was simply to throw more money at the next solution, a luxury we can ill-afford. Naturally, this has provoked a growing amount of scepticism, much of which has been aimed at Craig Levein.
For many supporters, this summer represented last chance saloon for Levein. The decision to empty Ian Cathro just over a year ago after our Betfred elimination, followed by a fruitless search for a replacement (both of which Levein played a prominent role in) left him sifting through the debris with little time to piece together a squad of his own. David Milinkovic proved to be a shrewd deadline-day capture, but for the most part, the squad Levein had at his disposal was not his. To his credit, he steadied the ship and made us defensively solid in a way Cathro would never have been capable of, which is partly what bought him many supporters’ patience for the remainder of the season (mine included).
However, being stingy at the back was only going to appease supporters to a limited extent, particularly when the only teams we outperformed at the other end of the pitch were Dundee and relegated Partick. For that supporter patience to endure, or even turn into full-blown approval, our impotence in the final third had to be addressed. Cue another squad reboot.
In came a raft of new midfielders and strikers, which led many to criticise Levein for presiding over more scattergun recruitment. Yet, when you consider that Kyle Lafferty was our only recognised striker by the season’s end, and that our midfield pool consisted of a 35-year old Don Cowie, an injured Arnaud Djoum, a departing Prince Buaben, a perpetually unfit Danny Amankwaa, three loanees (only one of whom has returned), a handful of school kids and Ross Callachan, the need for reinforcements was patently obvious.
In Uche Ikpeazu and Steven MacLean, we’ve added depth, variety and (most importantly) goals to our strike force, which should simultaneously ease the burden carried by Lafferty while keeping him on his toes, assuming a move to Ibrox doesn’t materialise. Meanwhile, a plethora of new arrivals in the centre of the park provides not only the depth we so badly lacked last season, but also the creativity, particularly from set pieces.
Olly Lee’s involvement in all five goals against Inverness suggests he’ll play a pivotal role in that regard as the season progresses, while Steven Naismith’s return offers an effective conduit between midfield and attack that simply didn’t exist last year. Out wide, although the jury is still out on Jake Mulraney, academy graduate Callumn Morrison has almost felt like a new signing, having emerged as one of our strongest performers during pre-season.
Opinions on others (Edwards, Bozanic) have still to be fully formed but the options available to Craig Levein (boosted by Djoum’s return from long-term injury) will surely ease the pressure that was previously forced upon youngsters like Harry Cochrane and Anthony McDonald, allowing them to contribute as and when required, not out of sheer necessity and without the risk of burnout.
Four competitive games, thirteen goals and seven different scorers: the signs so far suggest our recruitment has been relatively productive. I said earlier that I didn’t believe the standard of opponent in our Betfred Cup wins was any reason to stultify our positivity. If anything, as we embark on a league opener at a ground we took maximum points from last season, we have greater cause than normal to view those results in a positive light.