What a difference a week makes. After farting out a genuine contender for worst Hearts performance of the post-administration era and wringing the last drops of morale from the Tynecastle stands in the process, the players pulled off the unlikeliest of away wins at Fir Park, their first against a Premiership side since March. A step in the right direction, relatively speaking at least, when you consider that the previous step was planted in dog shit.
While I’m not one to let disappointing Hearts results affect my general mood for longer than is healthy, I’ve got to admit that the goalless draw with County left me as empty as I can ever remember feeling after a game, not because of the result itself, but the pathetically limp manner of it.
With the first six league fixtures serving up unpalatable trips to Pittodrie, Celtic Park and Easter Road, as well as a potentially tricky visit from Motherwell, a home game against the Premiership newcomers stood out as one of the more winnable ties on paper.
However, if the league was contested on paper, this Hearts squad – with its wealth of international experience and youthful talent – would not have looked as bereft of ideas as they did that afternoon.
In the immediate aftermath, Craig Levein cited a lack of confidence as the main factor inhibiting his players, though stopped short of naming names. However, given Joel Pereira’s swift arrival on loan from Manchester United a few days later and Levein’s confirmation prior to the Motherwell game that he would be coming in as first choice, it is now evident that Bobby Zlamal was top of that list.
The social media pile-on with regard to Zlamal has been an inevitable, if slightly excessive, reaction to events this past fortnight. Maybe it just comes with the goalkeeping territory, but in such circumstances, supporters are often quick to magnify the mistakes and wilfully ignore the positives if it means plugging a narrative that the man between the sticks is a “bomb scare” who “should be nowhere near the team”.
Granted, since the Scottish Cup final in May, concerns about the Czech had been growing in a similar way to how they might about an elderly relative living on their own: though there were flashes of lucidity when he appeared to still know what he was doing (a save-of-the -season contender at a crucial point in the semi-final win over Inverness for example), those were becoming increasingly lost in the moments of confusion and chaos.
However, this isn’t a basis for rewriting history. Prior to his clanger in the League Cup semi-final against Celtic, Zlamal had looked a reliable acquisition, playing his part in Hearts’ strong start to last season with seven clean sheets in his first 14 competitive games. In fact, as I wrote in late November when the whole team’s form was starting to dip, Zlamal’s individual stats – at least at that stage –belied any notion that he in particular was underperforming.
At worst, his form was fluctuating in tandem with the rest of the team: after all, the ‘keeper cannot be held accountable for his team-mates’ well-publicised struggles at the other end of the park. Even in the 5-0 defeat to Livingston – Zlamal’s first real car-crash performance in a Hearts shirt which saw him subsequently dropped – there is a tendency to forget just how disastrous the rest of the team were that night; the fact that Zlamal alone was made an example of has instead left this lasting impression that he was the only guilty party.
Although it may have seemed harsh to drop Colin Doyle for his own costly Fir Park fumble in an otherwise solid spell as Zlamal’s replacement, there were no errors of that magnitude after the Czech was reinstated.
That is, until the cup final.
While Zlamal’s form throughout the season had generally mirrored that of his team-mates, this was the first notable instance where a single moment of madness nullified the spirited efforts of the collective. With Hearts a goal to the good and Celtic running out of ideas to break them down, Zlamal’s decision to rush off his line and dive needlessly at the feet of Edouard, inviting the Frenchman to go down in search of a penalty, couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Football is filled with Sliding Doors moments and, without that mistake, there is a decent chance Christophe Berra would have gone on to lift the cup at full-time. Instead, it gave Celtic a boost at a point when they needed it most. Though the penalty only levelled the game, most Hearts fans would admit that after handing Celtic such a lifeline in pursuit of their third consecutive domestic treble, the result was only going to go one way from there.
It was every inch a match-losing mistake and I suspect the reality of that wasn’t lost on Bobby himself. Whereas during the opening few months of last season, he had the focus and self-assurance to step up when he was called into action, the early stages of this campaign were plagued by hesitancy and capriciousness, suggesting he had not fully recovered from that mishap in May.
Given how settled the back four looked after just one game in front of his replacement, it seems as though his crisis of confidence was also shared by his colleagues. Time will tell if Pereira can provide a more stable presence than his predecessor, but with Zlamal’s deal set to expire at the end of the season, it may be that the eccentric Czech has played his last game for the club.
Natural goal-scorers have been a rare breed around Gorgie for longer than we’d all care to remember, but we’ve always been relatively blessed in the goalkeeping department. As such, the bar is higher than it would be at other clubs. Bobby Zlamal is by no means a bad goalkeeper, but when you compare him to past custodians – Smith, Rousset, Niemi, Gordon, even the likes of McDonald, Kello and McLaughlin – it’s easy to see how Heart of Midlothian’s goalkeeping history could be particularly unkind to him in the years to come.
In the meantime, the rest of the players will be hoping to build on their confidence-boosting win over Motherwell when they travel along the M8 this afternoon. A trip to face the champions would obviously not be everyone’s first choice when in need of positive momentum (in fact, a defeat by more than two goals will leave us at the foot of the table) but with Neil Lennon’s side coming in for criticism after shaky performances against Cluj and Dunfermline in recent weeks, and having also played on Thursday night, there are unlikely to be many better circumstances in which to play them on their own patch.