Course Correction

by Feb 17, 2019

The most gripping football doc never made and other pre-Motherwell musings

Amidst the flurry of recent football club documentaries, the Amazons and Netflixes of the world appear to have missed a trick by not claiming the rights to this season’s Heart of Midlothian/Final Destination crossover series.

I’m starting to think this squad did something to cheat serious injury back in August when the league campaign kicked off at Hamilton (perhaps it was collectively making it through 90 minutes on a plastic pitch opposite Darian Mackinnon) because since then it seems as though the footballing gods have been on a course-correcting mission in which no Hearts player will be spared.

Having recently returned Uche Ikpeazu to us with one hand, they quickly snatched two back with the other, as Craig Levein this week revealed the full extent of Michael Smith’s thigh injury before compounding that news with the announcement that Demi Mitchell would also be facing an extended spell in the treatment room, making them the latest two names on this season’s eye-wateringly extensive list of long-term absentees. In some remote non-descript location, Callumn Morrison is currently hiding underneath the bed inside a fortified cabin, clutching a crucifix.

It is perhaps symptomatic of Hearts’ rotten luck over the past six months that Mitchell should be sidelined at this stage, having just produced arguably his best showing of the season on Sunday with a goal and two assists against Auchinleck Talbot.

It’s an ill-timed setback in what has been a rather anti-climactic second stint at the club for the Man Utd loanee, whose form last season had fans clamouring for his return throughout the summer break and salivating at the eventual sight of him parading the number 11 shirt in August. By the same token, that prior experience of Mitchell’s unquestionable talent, the knowledge of what he’s actually capable of and the exciting prospect of seeing it all again over the course of a full season are what have ultimately left supporters feeling disappointed with what he’s offered since.

However, while the standard of last Sunday’s opposition may have been weaker than any Premiership side he’s faced this season, there was still plenty in his performance to suggest he was edging closer to the standards he had set during his first loan spell, which makes it a harder pill to swallow than if it had occurred even a couple of months back.

Mitchell’s injury also seems to have raised further questions over exactly what it is Ben Garuccio has done to fall so suddenly out of his boss’ favour, with Levein making what seemed to be a very deliberate point of naming every possible option for the left back slot other than the only natural left-back at his disposal. As it stands, you and I are probably higher than the Australian in the pecking order.

On the other side of our defence, despite Levein having comparatively better options in reserve, Smith’s absence is going to be a lot harder to cover in practice. That’s no slur against Marcus Godinho, Jamie Brandon or whoever else slots into the vacant right-back position — they all have their own qualities that they’ll bring to the table — it’s just that none of them are Michael Smith.

Having tied the Northern Irishman down to a two-year contract extension, Craig Levein spoke recently about his desire to maintain consistency and stability with the squad over the coming seasons. Smith, more than anyone else in the current squad, has been the very embodiment of those values.

Save for a one-match suspension in October and a relatively minor knee injury that kept him out of two games at the start of the season, Smith is the closest thing Hearts have had to a constant this season, having played the most minutes of any player in the side.

To see him hit the deck so suddenly in such innocuous-looking circumstances was therefore unsettling, akin to that first moment in your life as a kid when you realise your dad isn’t invincible. If Michael Smith — Mr ‘solid seven-out-of-ten’, the tireless, reliable presence who stood unscathed while all around him his colleagues’ bodies were betraying them — is also susceptible to damage, what hope is there for the rest of us?

There is also an added frustration around the timing of this latest injury, having come just as we thought we were on the verge of seeing our strongest eleven fully fit and completing 90 minutes together for the first time this season, with Peter Haring also nearing a comeback from his own injury lay-off.

For Marcus Godinho though, it’s an opportunity to show that he merits a place in that eleven, having also contended with injury problems of late. In fact, such is the turbulence he’s encountered in that time, that it’s easy to forget the 21-year old has made only 13 senior appearances for Hearts since his first team breakthrough a little under a year ago. It’s fitting, therefore, that the young Canadian begins what he hopes will be an extended run in the first team at the scene of his debut last March.

While it’s not yet been confirmed if he’ll make it, Haring’s return to the starting line-up would be a welcome boost ahead of the trip to Fir Park. If Hearts are going to leave North Lankarshire with three points, the main priority will be to shackle Alan Campbell and David Turnbull, whose form in central midfield has been key to Motherwell’s recent winning streak of five league games. The big Austrian would therefore provide a more dominant and assured presence in the centre of the park than, Olly Lee, for example, whose propensity for multiple touches and slowing down play would be putty in the hands of Motherwell’s midfield duo.

With Aberdeen and Rangers each dropping two points in surprising fashion yesterday, and Kilmarnock welcoming Celtic to Rugby Park this afternoon, there is a very real opportunity for Hearts to narrow the gap on the three sides immediately above them.

Of course, by pointing that out, I’ve probably tempted fate. After all, as Hearts fans we’ve seen this film multiple times before, most recently in our 0–0 draw with Livingston: closest rivals drop points, Hearts are therefore presented with an ideal opportunity to capitalise, only for Hearts to also drop points, thus letting their rivals off the hook.

A trip to face an in-form Motherwell side is obviously not the first fixture we’d choose in these circumstances, but if we are to have any chance of securing a European place, we need to start taking advantage of other teams’ slip-ups by winning these kinds of games. Not only that, a win at such a traditionally tough ground would also provide a much-needed head of steam going into our last eight pre-split league meetings which — somewhat significantly — happen to be against the top three, bottom three and our city rivals.

When you consider how badly we fell apart between October and December, as well as some of the abysmal results we’ve had along the way, it’s almost inconceivable that we haven’t completely come off the rails before now. A lot of other sides would have. I have little doubt the footballing gods will return at some stage to conduct further course correction, but having endured what is surely the worst they can throw at us (touches nearest wooden item), a successful season is still very much in our own hands.

Until next time.

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