Seconds after Aaron Hughes’ brain-fart gifted Hamilton an opening goal only 17 minutes into the first league game of the season, I sunk into my seat and pondered the cruel irony of Hearts starting a new campaign at a stadium named Hope. Last week, I wrote about reasons to be positive ahead of our South Lanarkshire curtain-raiser and for a few minutes, I thought I had let that “new season smell” get to my head and cloud my judgement.
Because we’ve all done this dance with Hearts before: they mistreat us, put us through emotional turmoil, take us for granted until it becomes too much to handle and we leave them for a couple of months. Then they contact us, telling us how much they need us, how they can’t be without us, how this time will be different and, knowing we have nowhere else to go, we forgive them and return to their open arms for another season. Hearts are Trevor Morgan. We, the fans, are Little Mo.
Except this time does seem different. Last season, we failed to win a single game in which the opposition opened the scoring. In fact, you’d have to go back to January 2017 to find the last competitive game we won under such circumstances (a 4–2 win over Raith Rovers in a Scottish Cup replay) and even then it required extra time. The last time we did it in 90 minutes was nearly two years ago in a 3–1 win over Hamilton at Tynecastle. Away from home? Three years ago.
Chronic submissiveness had become the Heart of Midlothian hallmark and for at least three minutes on Saturday, having seen us go a goal behind after a sluggish start, the 2,600-strong travelling support would have been forgiven for expecting more of the same.
However, on this occasion, instead of Mickel Miller’s goal forcing the players into another meek surrender, it lit a fire in their bellies and inspired the kind of fightback I’d forgotten a Hearts team could be capable of, helped in no small part by a clutch of our new recruits.
As expected, the likes of Christophe Berra, John Souttar and Steven Naismith all played their reliable parts, but instead of being the usual suspects compensating for shortcomings elsewhere on the pitch, they’ve been joined by what looks like a strong supporting cast around them for the upcoming season, if Saturday’s second half performance is anything to go by.
The fact that we can afford to leave last season’s top scorer on the bench and introduce him having already built up a 4–1 lead is testament to the potency of our revamped attack, with Uche Ikpeazu, Steven MacLean, Callumn Morrison and Olly Lee all putting in impressive shifts.
However, the most outstanding performer on the day was undoubtedly Peter Haring, originally signed as a defender and yet completely at home in the middle of the park, pulling strings, winning aerial battles, committing to every 50/50, ‘megging Tom Taiwo when he felt like it and scoring goals for fun, much to his manager’s delight:
“We signed him as a centre-back but he has played all the time as an attacking midfield player. You could see that from his second goal. He showed composure with bodies in front of him to pick out the corner. I love him. He is so honest and wholehearted in everything he does — every tackle, every header. He is a dream.”
It’s felt like too long since Hearts last had a midfielder who could dictate a game in that manner and although it’s still early in Haring’s Hearts career, the initial signs offer encouragement that he fits what has been a scarcely-used mould at Tynecastle in recent years.
Overall, Saturday’s performance gave plenty hope for the season ahead, but the obvious caveat to that statement is that it was against Hamilton, one of the worst teams in the league who will surely be scrapping for survival come May next year. On that basis, there’s probably no better time for us to be playing Celtic at Tynecastle. As Craig Levein put it:
“I have no idea of where we are at the moment. We’ve got a lot of new players and some of them aren’t up to full speed yet. I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made but we haven’t played Celtic or a lot of teams in the league who could test us severely. I’m hopeful things are heading in the right direction. I just feel that if we want to improve we’ve got to compete with Celtic.”
Hope that Brendan Rodgers’ players will be fatigued by their midweek exertions against AEK Athens — or distracted by their make-or-break trip to the Greek capital this coming Tuesday — may prove to be false. However, the reality facing Hearts right now is that, for the upcoming season to be considered even remotely successful, a far stronger challenge is required at the top end of the table.
On that basis, tomorrow’s contest provides our newer players with an early opportunity to measure themselves against the best in the league and show what they’re capable of when faced with tougher opposition in more intense surroundings (length of grass notwithstanding). By full-time, I’d imagine we’ll all have a slightly better understanding of where we are.