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The pivotal point in Hearts’ season could be a game they never played

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Among many undesirable features of this season down Gorgie way has been the propensity for false dawns. With the Betfred Cup win over Motherwell, the first derby win at Easter Road and two home league meetings with Rangers creating their fair share of artificial expectation and short-lived sanguinity, there was an understandable reluctance to get carried away with the latest positive result in last week’s Scottish Cup quarter-final.

It’s a movie with more re-runs than Kindergarten Cop on ITV2: a good result which Hearts inevitably fail to consolidate by reverting to type. In isolation, the league win over Rangers in late January and the last-gasp 3-3 draw away to St Johnstone looked like positive results, which pointed to a new-found “never say die” mentality that didn’t exist before Daniel Stendel’s arrival.

However, context is key and what followed against Kilmarnock, Celtic and Hamilton laid bare the defensive and goalkeeping frailties Rangers had exposed but ultimately failed to punish and which, through the prism of hindsight, cast the goals conceded in Perth in a more concerning light.

The manner of the latest win over Rangers was markedly different. Unlike the league victory that preceded it, when Steven Gerrard’s men passed up a multitude of chances to put the game beyond their hosts, they were given little change by a robust, organised Hearts defence reinvigorated by ropes and goggles.

That they could replicate such solidity across the city a few days later, and feel slightly irked by conceding a mere consolation goal in the most comfortable derby win we’ve had for a while, not only spoke volumes for training methods mocked by red top rags but also suggested lessons had been learned.

Football has the tendency to alter moods dramatically in the space of only a couple of results. If you had asked Hearts fans coming out of the 2-2 home draw against Hamilton last month what they felt our chances of top-flight survival were, you would have drowned in a sea of despondency. Two wins later and those of a maroon persuasion were riding a wave of optimism ahead of Motherwell’s visit to Tynecastle.

On its own, Saturday was up there with the most frustrating matches I’ve watched in a while; a 90-minute showcase of the Jekyll and Hyde characteristics exuded by a team simultaneously on the precipice of relegation and one win away from its second cup final in as many seasons.

Motherwell’s goal was every inch the kind of self-inflicted wound that we’ve witnessed all too often this season, the latest in a dog-eared catalogue of individual errors that have handicapped us at the most inopportune moments, this one coming only 20 minutes into a game that we had started in relatively positive fashion. Granted, Chris Long still had to be cool and composed to round Bobby Zlamal and slide the ball through a retreating Craig Halkett’s legs, but his opportunity to do so had been gift-wrapped by the latter seconds beforehand when he pondered for too long in possession.

In the moments that followed, there was a genuine sense that the first-half capitulation against Hamilton was about to play out in front of us once again. Another Motherwell counter-attack led to a four-on-two situation and a brief heart-in-mouth moment when Jermaine Hylton hit the deck under pressure from Zlamal, only to have his penalty claims waved away. Shortly after, the Czech’s decision to head the ball away from the edge of his box gave Long a sight of an empty goalmouth, which he missed by some distance.

However, like the Hamilton game, the tendency for Stendel’s Hearts to not know when they’re beaten brought a barrage of chances after the break. Having levelled early in the second half courtesy of Conor Washington, they may well have won, but for a cocktail of poor decision-making, slack delivery and downright rotten luck in the final third.

Afterwards, Stendel spoke of his side’s impatience in chasing the win, which was most notable in first-time long-range efforts by Liam Boyce and Michael Smith when there was time and space to take a touch on each occasion. That same impatience could be felt both in stands during the game and on social media afterwards, with the fans understandably as desperate as the players to escape our current circumstances, fully aware that time is running out. 

It also points to a growing frustration with circumstances beyond our control. A draw with the league’s third-placed side, who themselves seemed happy to play for the point despite their own European ambitions, added to a derby win at Easter Road in the same week, would normally have been considered a significant step towards safety. Unfortunately, with Hamilton hitting form at the same time – recording unexpected victories over Rangers and Kilmarnock – it feels more like the step you try to take in a bad dream when someone’s chasing you, the kind that seems to get you nowhere fast.

By the same token, it’s a point closer to St Mirren and Ross County, who both found themselves being dragged into the depths of the relegation dogfight after respective defeats to Celtic and Rangers at the weekend. This evening’s trip to Paisley was always going to be crucial, with or without a win on Saturday; now, with three points separating us, victory is vital.

While nerves will understandably be jangling ahead of this proverbial “six-pointer”, the timing could very well work in Hearts’ favour. Not only is the team performing far better than they were prior to the original February fixture (which was set to follow the disappointing draw with Hamilton), the fringe players and forgotten men whose days at the club looked numbered – Dikamona, Bozanic, Damour, Moore and Washington – have also stepped out of the shadows to contribute.

Had the initial game gone ahead, I’m not convinced we would have come back with anything to show for it; only a few weeks later, pre-match positivity has been restored. In the context of a season beset with false starts, a postponement may prove as pivotal as any fixture we’ve fulfilled.

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