With the nights drawing in and seasonal affective disorder just around the corner, it feels strange to be talking about football with the kind of hope and optimism that, in any normal year, has dissipated long before the first autumn leaf has touched the ground. But as we’re all aware, due to circumstances largely beyond our control, this is no normal year.
The road leading up to this stage has been a long and largely unpleasant one, with more obstacles and hostile competitors than a Mario Kart circuit, leaving a bitter sense of injustice that will linger long in the memory. However, having spent seven months locked away watching other leagues in action like a grounded child looking out the window at everyone else having fun, Hearts fans were finally able to put the bureaucratic nonsense of the summer to one side on Tuesday night, as competitive football returned to Tynecastle for the first time since March with the visit of Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Betfred Cup.
That the season kicked off in front of empty stands was the only real downside – and it could be some time before the supporters themselves return – but considering how long we have been forced to wait to see our team play, even the pixelated version on my laptop was sufficient, with the TV in my household subject to a Tuesday night fixture clash with the Great British Bake Off.
While Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas were introducing bread week in the tent, John Robertson’s young Inverness side were rising to the occasion in Gorgie, proving their worth against the Championship favourites with a couple of early scoring opportunities, one of which (a diving header from point-blank range) forced a typically world-class save from Craig Gordon, who was making his second competitive debut for the club exactly 18 years to the day since his first.
In that moment, all it took was a flick of Gordon’s wrist to banish the bad memories of yester-season and remind Hearts fans how it felt to be in the safe, protective arms of a goalkeeper who knows what he’s doing. “There, there. Craig’s here now. The bad man from Manchester can’t hurt you anymore.”
Also on that list of “things we haven’t seen in a Hearts side for too long” (which later included the wonderful sight of a returning Peter Haring) was a winger with blistering pace and an insatiable appetite to take his man on at every opportunity.
Stationed out wide on the right of Neilson’s lop-sided 4-2-3-1 , Josh Ginnelly was arguably our best player on the night, with the vast majority of meaningful Hearts attacks involving the on-loan Preston North End man to some extent. Not everything “Gino” attempted came off as planned, but that did little to quell his determination or creativity as the match wore on and with better finishing from his new team-mates, he may well have come away with an assist or two.
The multitude of chances created but ultimately squandered offered the most glaring (and largely unwelcome) semblance of continuity from the pre-Covid days. One player desperately seeking improvement in that regard is Craig Wighton who, since arriving from Dundee to muted fanfare in the summer of 2018, has done little to justify the fee Hearts shelled out on him. Two injury-pocked years later, the 23-year old striker is still looking for his first competitive goal in a maroon jersey, a drought that continued on Tuesday as he led the line in Liam Boyce’s absence.
Having been written off by a sizable section of the Hearts support and farmed out on loan to Arbroath in the months leading up to lockdown, many expected Wighton to be one of the first out of the door when the summer clear-out started. It came as somewhat of a surprise, therefore, when Robbie Neilson confirmed he would be one of the club’s main two strikers, along with Boyce, for the forthcoming campaign. That news has been met with derision from some fans, but Wighton seems well aware that he must repay Neilson’s faith this season if he is to have any hope of extending his Hearts career beyond the final year of his current contract.
As such, he appears to have spent most of lockdown in the weights room and certainly used his bulkier frame to good effect in the more physical engagements with the Inverness back line. He’s also ditched his locks in favour of a more hardened skinhead look, though it was Inverness who experienced a closer shave when he passed up a glaring chance to open the scoring in the first half, crashing the ball off the bar from only a few yards out.
Such an opportunity would have been bread and butter for a striker in form and brimming with confidence, but Wighton is not that striker. Perhaps ironically, if he is to reach that level and prove his many doubters wrong, they are also the chances he needs to be taking, especially while he has the relative luxury of playing without those same doubters getting on his back from the stands.
As we have witnessed elsewhere in recent months, football can throw up the most anomalous results without the twelfth man to galvanise and intimidate players in equal measure. Many players have spoken about the power of a packed Tynecastle crowd in that respect, but the past four years have also shown how quickly the effect can backfire when things are going badly. Players who struggle in that environment usually fail to make the grade in maroon and we have seen plenty shipped out in recent seasons who fell into that category. Having survived the latest cull, Wighton now has to use the empty seats to his advantage and build up a run of form before their occupants return.
In keeping with what appears to be the fashion in football officiating these days, a harsh handball decision allowed Jamie Walker to ultimately decide the game from the penalty spot. Given the softness of that judgement and the fact that we rode our luck a little in the closing stages, a single-goal winning margin and clean sheet in the team’s first competitive encounter for over 200 days, against one of the stronger teams we will face this season, can probably be considered a good result.
Of course, there is plenty room for improvement but more than enough to suggest that we have all the ingredients in place to enjoy a fruitful season. Whether the season actually reaches its natural conclusion is a separate issue in itself, especially with the rising number of positive Covid-19 cases emerging throughout the game in the past couple of months.
After all, if the richest league in the world is struggling to contain the virus, despite its ability to finance rigorous testing, what chance do the Scottish lower leagues have when no such testing requirements are in place? It’s a genuine concern and one that will no doubt rear its ugly head as the season progresses. In the meantime, it’s just great to be back.