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Absence makes the Hearts grow fonder

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After a couple of weeks off, we have our club and our Craig back — and we couldn’t be happier

When your country hasn’t made a major international tournament in two decades, you’d think being presented with an easier route to the next Euros and starting that journey with a comfortable win would be cause for optimism.

However, as someone who has spent two thirds of his life growing increasingly apathetic towards the Scottish national team, I have to confess that the only remotely positive emotion I felt after last week’s win over Albania was relief — not that Scotland had won, but that the our own representatives had come through it unscathed.

For the past couple of seasons, the international break has, at best, offered a period of much-needed respite from the typically fraught ordeal of watching Hearts. However, the latest recess felt more of an inconvenience, an unwelcome interruption of something far better.

Something like Craig Levein’s Heart of Midlothian.

It’s an exciting time to be a Hearts fan. Having witnessed more squad reboots than we care to remember in recent seasons, we finally appear to have assembled a group of players who possess just the right blend of talent, professionalism, leadership and ambition; players who are prepared to run themselves into the ground and fight for each other, without compromising on the quality of the actual football.

The result is an infectious feel-good factor within the Hearts support, the likes of which we haven’t really experienced since our first season back in the Premiership. For the first time in what seems like a long time, a trip to Tynecastle feels less of a mundane, duty-bound chore and more like something I actively look forward to during the week. In short, I can’t wait to get back.

It’s a sentiment that is no doubt shared by Craig Levein who, having been out of action since late August for health reasons, looks set to return to the dugout for this Saturday’s meeting with Livingston. That he is certain to receive a rousing ovation when he does is undoubtedly the biggest mark of the sharp turnaround in our fortunes this season.

An omnipresent figure at the club since the Ann Budge era began in 2014, Levein has faced disproportionate levels of scrutiny from the stands and the media, with many questioning his role, involvement in team affairs and overall accountability. That scepticism threatened to endure as recently as July this year, when the latest incarnation of post-administration Hearts stumbled to a draw against Raith Rovers in the Betfred Cup.

However, two months later and that remains the one competitive game we’ve failed to win in 10 this season. Since then, we’ve maintained a 100% record in the league and reached the quarter finals of the Betfred Cup. What’s more, three of our five league wins have come on the road, two of them at Kilmarnock and Motherwell, “difficult places to go” as evidenced by the solitary win we picked up from four competitive visits to those grounds last season.

That kind of form — particularly away from home — simply isn’t part of the usual Heart of Midlothian DNA, which is perhaps why parallels have been drawn with George Burley’s “eight game invincibles” of 2005. To even be mentioned in the same conversation as a Hearts team as highly regarded as Burley’s is a significant tribute. However, there are notable differences between the two sides which, in some respects, make the comparison even more complimentary to the current squad.

First of all, the Class of 2006 was a team with a distinct Scottish core made up of established internationalists (Gordon, Pressley, Webster, Hartley) who had already formed a bond over the previous few seasons. Alongside them, a handful of talented overseas players with experience at some of Europe’s bigger clubs and winners’ medals with club and country. Furthermore, it was a team that, while hugely entertaining to watch, was built on a significant budget that was ultimately unsustainable.

For reasons we’re all fully aware of, we operate with comparatively frugal resources these days. The current team is (at least compared to their predecessors of 12–13 years ago) a more ragtag bunch of individuals, sourced from the modest surroundings of English lower league football, Austria, Australia, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic. For Champions League-winning striker Edgaras Jankauskas, read Cambridge United’s Uche Ikpeazu; for Euro 2004 winning left-back Takis Fyssas, see Adelaide United’s Ben Garuccio.

That fiscal prudence is just one positive facet of a club being run by people with sound business minds, who are less prone to egotism than previous owners; individuals who are reflective enough to learn from mistakes and more inclined to build on any success that may come our way, whether that’s European qualification or more.

As far as title challenges go, George Burley’s departure in 2005 will forever be one of those nagging “what if” moments rooted in the minds of Hearts fans. However, where Burley’s absence had a noticeably curtailing effect on our dreams that season, our current manager’s absence will be felt only temporarily.

And therein lies the most notable difference between then and now. Of course, it’s still early in the season and the odds on Craig Levein leading Hearts to title glory are understandably high, but unlike Burley, he’ll at least have the opportunity to build on our early-season momentum and, if he can, allow us to dream a little longer.

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