Such was the buzz surrounding Daniel Stendel’s first match in charge that, despite having a Christmas meal to attend at 4pm on Saturday, I made the conscious decision to turn up to Tynecastle for the first half. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I expected anything other than a sobering reminder of the unenviable task our new manager has on his hands.
This isn’t FIFA or Football Manager. There’s no quick-fix, no plug-and-play strategy to offer relief or instant gratification. In fact, if you regard the “new manager bounce” as some form of unwritten rule in football, you can guarantee this Hearts side will be the exception. And yet, there is also the sense that a win in Stendel’s opening game would have represented something of a false dawn. Instead, the early lessons learned about his new charges (and the potential rebuild that lies ahead) will likely be the silver lining.
What the latest defeat does mean is that, in terms of points accrued at this stage of the season, this current squad remains on a par with Gary Locke’s young side of 2013/14, which had recovered 12 points from the 15 deducted for entering administration.
Consider that, back then, the club was living on a hand-to-mouth basis, an inexperienced squad had been stripped to the bare bones and those left were playing on significantly reduced terms, the performances of this current side, with greater career experience and comparatively fatter wage packets, appear all the more galling.
Locke has often been derided for his managerial capabilities, but there is no denying that he was working under arguably the most testing conditions the club has ever witnessed. Off the field, that could not be further from the present reality, with the club in the best shape it’s ever been in. On the field, at least in terms of quality, you’d struggle to notice any difference.
However, what Locke’s young charges lacked in ability, they more than made up for in courage, having displayed the kind of siege mentality that saw them at least go down fighting. The Class of 2019, by contrast, has spent the majority of this season rocking back and forth in the corner, eyes closed, fingers in ears, just praying for all the badness to go away.
Make no mistake, relegation is as real a possibility this season as it was five years ago. If Stendel is to prevent that from happening, he needs them to buy into his philosophy as soon as possible. However, to have any chance of doing that, he first has to snap the players out of the fugue state they’ve been stuck in for the past 12 months, restore their self-belief and promote greater pride in their performances. Easier said than done when confidence is as low as it is.
As ‘keeper Bobby Zlamal put it after the St Johnstone game:
“I think it’s been like this all season that we are not very confident on the ball. Supporters are shouting to us and it’s a bad atmosphere but that’s not an excuse.”
What Zlamal’s words highlight is the self-defeating nature of the whole situation: the more the players underperform, the more toxic the atmosphere gets, which translates back onto the pitch and causes the players to play even further within themselves.
No reasonable supporter expects a player to be on top form every week. Players are, after all, mere mortals like the rest of us and they carry the same performance-sapping mental baggage in their day-to-day lives. However, such dips in confidence usually come and go in shorter bursts, affecting different players at different times, whereas the current crisis at Hearts seems to have spread through the squad like the norovirus, only lingering for much longer and producing far more shit.
Although the players’ confidence may drop, supporter expectations at a club like Hearts are unlikely to do the same. Such a prolonged dearth of confidence would suggest that a lot of these players simply aren’t prepared to cope with the harsh reality of that.
By the same token, as much as supporters might argue that it is their right as paying customers to boo and jeer their own players, such an atmosphere is unlikely to be conducive to the system Stendel wants to implement in the coming weeks, one that (among other things) demands bravery in possession.
Of course, this is not the only obstacle to progress. In order for Stendel to really get his message across to his new players, he needs assistance on the training ground; a trusted backroom team that knows his philosophy inside-out and can help convey the ideas he is currently trying to impart alone, in his third language, no less.
On that note, I want to refer back to something Michael Smith said, prior to Stendel’s arrival last week, which caught my eye:
“I’m excited to see what he brings. I watched Barnsley a few times when they won promotion last season and they looked like a good side, playing with a high press. If he can instil that in us then maybe we can go out there and perform and get results. We definitely needed a clean break and some new ideas.”
As much as the players were keen to proclaim their public support for Craig Levein at times earlier this season, that last sentence seemed to confirm what had become increasingly apparent to anyone who had the misfortune of watching Hearts play: that behind the scenes, a staleness had set in and that a fresh approach was required.
As if to drive that point home even further, Stendel announced on Friday that neither Jon Daly nor Liam Fox would be joining him in the dugout for the St Johnstone game, citing Andy Kirk as the only existing coach he “trusted”.
Though I don’t necessarily share the scepticism other fans have about the size or structure of the coaching setup at the club, there are certainly concerns about the component parts retained from the previous regime, as I spoke about in my last piece.
That Stendel could produce such a damning indictment of both coaches, a mere three days into the job, ought to be setting alarm bells off at boardroom level and rightly raises questions as to why they were kept on in the first place, especially at the expense of Stendel’s trusted lieutenants, Chris Stern and Dale Tonge.
Given the various hurdles Ann Budge seemingly jumped to get Stendel through the door, it would seem counterproductive to have done so without providing assurances that he could bring in his own staff, and equally unlikely that Stendel would have agreed to take the job without them.
Trust is something the German clearly values in his working relationships: it was one of the reasons he gave for joining Hearts and one of the reasons he has enlisted Kirk (with his knowledge of the club and its younger player) to assist him.
The hope, therefore, is that he can rely on the club to provide the additional tools he needs to drag the team out of its current predicament, sooner rather than later, and without the spectres of previous failures at the feast.