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Seven Weeks to Sainthood

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Even while we stuttered through a fruitless opening round of league fixtures earlier this season, many of us clung desperately to the narrative that, with our budget and what was often referred to as “a good squad on paper”, relegation was unfathomable. Unfortunately, as our form finally saw us slump to the bottom of the table after a home defeat to St Johnstone in Daniel Stendel’s first game at the helm, that comfort blanket was suddenly whipped away and grim reality set in: no team is too good to go down.

As we embarked on Saturday’s trip to Perth, only seven weeks had passed since that dismal day in December, but much had changed. Ironically, the only thing that remained consistent throughout that period was Hearts’ place at the foot of the table. However, as Stendel prepared to face off against Tommy Wright’s side for the second time since his appointment, there was genuine belief that this too would change by full-time.

That is primarily because Stendel’s team is a different animal to the timorous beasties he inherited less than two months ago, a testament to the early work carried out by the German. His first league win last week against Rangers added to a growing sense among supporters that this Hearts squad, if not “too good to go down”, should at least be good enough to stay up.

Key to that new-found positivity is Stendel himself and the changes he has implemented in a relatively short space of time. While red top rag artists and the learned scholars of Sportsound have focused on myriad irrelevances including his appearance, the slight inaccuracies in his expression of the English language and the delusional ramblings of those serial under-performers he cut loose, Hearts fans have preferred to judge Stendel on the actual merits of his work, which so far have been incredibly encouraging.

For evidence of endorsement in the stands, look no further than the “Diamond Daniel Stendel” song belted out by supporters at Saturday’s game, a serenade that stands in sharp contrast to the last McDiarmid Park visit in October, when supporters sang for Craig Levein’s sacking after a 1-0 defeat.

There has been an odd significance to this season’s encounters with St Johnstone, each of them a sign-post on the slow road from ruin to redemption, not just for the team as a whole but individual players, Sean Clare chief among them. A player transformed, Clare epitomises the turnaround under Stendel, the renewed belief and strength of character to bounce back from adversity. Having suffered the ignominy of sarcastic applause from his own supporters when he was subbed during Saints’ visit to Tynecastle, it was fitting that he would emerge as the hero of the piece the next time the sides met.

That late equaliser simply would not have happened under Stendel’s predecessors. Such was the squad’s soft centre and fragile confidence under Levein that few would have ever put money on them recovering from a goal down once, let alone twice in the same game. And although a draw may have perpetuated some struggles that pre-date Stendel and seem woven into the club’s fabric (the inability to win in Perth, the missed opportunities to consolidate results like last week’s win over Rangers) the difference this time is the manager’s refusal to accept it as the norm.

Whereas before, we were offered weekly assurances that improvement was “just around the corner” and told that we would not be measured on results against Rangers, Celtic or any team whose ground is a tough place to go, Stendel does not dress up disappointing results or subscribe to the same defeatist dialogue. That much was evident in his post-match comments.

“I will need some time to understand what happened in the second half. I thought in the first half we were in control, even when St Johnstone scored I felt we controlled the game. At half-time, I told the players if they play the same again they would win, but we knew St Johnstone would come out and try to make an impact. In the second half, we played a different game and it was like we had different players on the pitch. We lost our ideas. At half-time I didn’t think I would be saying I’d be happy with a point but, when you see the second half, I am.”

For supporters used to being fobbed off with hollow post-match platitudes and very little restorative action, Stendel’s honest assessment of the performance and reluctance to be satisfied with a draw represent a refreshing change of tone. Even when he admits that he needs time to understand why the second half panned out as it did, there is greater trust in his ability to figure it out and put it right; the notable improvements he’s overseen since taking over have earned him that much. In many respects, he is the antithesis of Craig Levein.

Under Levein, there was a notable disconnect between him and the team, the team and the supporters, the supporters and him. Mistakes elicited groans, groans created tension, tension caused further mistakes and mistakes led to defeats, the explanations for which only served to insult supporter intelligence. By contrast, Stendel has embraced the emotional infrastructure of the club. He understands the galvanising effect a raucous Tynecastle (”our castle”) can have on the players and looks to maximise that energy by setting his team up to play in a particular way.

Three months ago, the default response to going a goal behind at home to Rangers would have been damage limitation, while an equaliser would have necessitated extra defenders to protect the draw. However, if Stendel’s decision not to name a single defensive player on the bench wasn’t considered ballsy on its own, his balls were very much out on the table when, prior to Liam Boyce’s winner, he threw a fifth striker into the action – a move that was less “never say die”, more “go for the kill”. The fans responded in kind and the result was one of the most electric atmospheres we’ve had at Tynecastle in some time.

In the way he directs his players on the pitch – gesticulating, kicking every ball, mimicking the urgency he demands from his players – Stendel is the conductor of that electricity. However, as Saturday demonstrated, that atmosphere will always be harder to replicate in half-empty grounds, even with the vocal backing of a sizeable travelling Hearts support.

Home form is therefore pivotal. As the players continue to familiarise themselves with the tactical elements of Stendelball (and Saturday’s 3-3 draw suggests there is still some way to go) it is crucial that the raw, visceral, often chaotic energy we witnessed during the Rangers game is sustained, even against the so-called smaller teams, in order for the philosophy to thrive and steer us closer to safety. A second consecutive league win tonight under the Tynecastle lights, against a team we’ve not beaten in Edinburgh since 2017, would lay down a small but significant marker in that respect.

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