In a month that has so far witnessed major political shifts and temperatures soaring to record levels, the climate down Gorgie way has registered little in the way of change. The new season may only be two weeks young but old rivalries remain, as the uncivil war between the “pant-wetter” and “happy-clapper” tribes of Tynecastle rages on.
Football fans love to deal in extremes and Hearts fans are no different in that regard. Say anything remotely positive about the club, defend Ann Budge or Craig Levein in any way and you’re dismissed as a “sweetie-rustler” and a “jammy-wearer”. By the same token, complain about the standard of football, question the manager’s decisions or criticise a player’s performance and you’re “not a proper supporter”. Continue ad nauseam.
Except, football isn’t that black and white. Having been accused of blind optimism and needless pessimism by members of both factions in response to various tweets and articles over the years, I find myself in no-man’s land without any real sense of allegiance to either.
Over the past two seasons, I have generally been an advocate of patience and pragmatism. However, supporters can only base their views on what plays out in front of them and, having seen little evidence of improvement heading into the third season under Craig Levein’s stewardship, my grip on those values is loosening.
Last season, the most problematic area of this Hearts side – other than its overcrowded treatment room – was the attack. A return of 42 league goals, the lowest of the top six sides by some distance, pointed not only to a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal, but also to a paucity of chances created.
As we entered pre-season, much of the dialogue centred on the need for new blood. The likes of Conor Sammon and David Vanecek were emptied in what we all hoped would be an exorcism of striking incompetence, paving the way for Conor Washington who, despite an unproductive spell with Sheffield United last season, had shown enough during his time in English League One to suggest he’d be an improvement on that particular departing duo.
Meanwhile, in the returning Jamie Walker (whose formative years in maroon produced an impressive 41 goals and 35 assists in 181 appearances) Hearts fans saw a proven creative operator at Premiership level and someone who would surely ease the burden on Steven Naismith.
With both expected to provide the clinical edge that has been badly lacking for months, it is therefore surprising that this responsibility has so far been shouldered by our third summer signing, Craig Halkett. In four Betfred Cup group games against exclusively lower league opponents, Hearts scored six goals, half of which came from the former Livingston captain, who also happened to set up Walker for one of the other three. Chances have been created, but so far it seems our new centre back is the only one capable of consistently taking them.
In the absence of Naismith and Peter Haring, these Betfred Cup games were meant to be an opportunity for the rest of the players, particularly our attackers, to dispel any lingering notion that they were overly-reliant on their two missing team-mates. Not that their presence against comparatively weaker opposition should have been required in the first place.
And yet, the same wastefulness was there, resulting in two draws and a last-ditch win. Despite being enough to clinch top spot in the group, these were results that ought to have been more comfortable but ultimately cost Hearts a seeded position in the next round. Speaking after the East Fife game, Levein offered the following synopsis:
“I look at these games and the one theme has been our ability to create chances. Not taking them has been the annoying thing but I can see that improving. So I’m not particularly bothered by that.”
In isolation, the number of chances created in these games would usually provide some comfort that, with a little more composure, goals would eventually follow. Yet, in the context of Hearts’ 2019 performances, fans are likely to question the strength of the manager’s conviction.
Levein also went on to claim that “the cup didn’t have any bearing on the start of the league last year”, using the fans’ reaction to the Raith Rovers draw to presumably demonstrate the point that patience is required. However, there is an element of selective memory here, given that Hearts followed that draw up with two 5-0 victories against Cowdenbeath and Inverness in the remaining group games to end on a positive note.
This time last year, I wrote about how those two wins and the variety of goal-scorers offered cause for optimism our attacking options heading into the opening game away to Hamilton. And so it proved, as we enjoyed a nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions thereafter. Since then, we have all come to realise just how instrumental Naismith was in everything that went well during those early halcyon days.
The bum note on which we ended this round of group games has done little to alter that mind-set. By this stage, I had hoped to be waxing lyrical about the Washingtons, Walkers, Ikpeazus and Clares of our rejuvenated free-scoring attack. Instead, I find myself being tempted to reach for the same comfort blanket many other Hearts fans have swaddled themselves in this past week: “it’ll be fine when Naismith’s back”.
In fact, the correlation between Naismith’s injuries and Hearts’ poorest form last season is so well-documented that, for those of a maroon and white persuasion, the prospect of a no-Naismith Hearts side this season looks bleaker than a no-deal Brexit. It is of little surprise, therefore, that supporters have once again circled his imminent return on the calendar in the hope that he’ll give this team a much-needed lift.
And he will. He’ll lead by example and demand better from his colleagues like he always does, though just how long he’s able to fulfil that on-field coaching role depends entirely on his ability to remain injury-free. With his 33rd birthday just around the corner and the extent to which he has overcome last season’s recurring knee injury still to be determined, pinning our hopes on him seems like increasingly risky business.
Levein’s comparisons to last year also understate the potential difficulty of our opening fixtures, with Pittodrie, Parkhead and Easter Road looking like particularly problematic destinations for our first three games on the road. Even with a fully-fit Naismith in the side, any points from those trips would be considered a bonus.
This offers little margin for error in the first three home fixtures against Ross County, Hamilton and Motherwell. Anything less than maximum points from those games and any remaining happy-clappers may find themselves drowned out as the dissenters’ pants get wetter.