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Friday Night Lichties

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Though Hearts and Arbroath last faced each other competitively five years ago, when the Jam Tarts triumphed 4-2 in a League Cup tie at Tynecastle, tonight sees the first league fixture between the sides since 1980 and the first competitive meeting at Gayfield Park since 1979.

Back then, such encounters were far more commonplace than they are nowadays, largely because Hearts spent much of the 1970s flitting back and forth between the top two divisions. However, the last time the Red Lichties came out on top was November 1974 when a late own goal by Hearts keeper Jim Cruickshank rounded off a 3-1 victory on their own turf.

While the odds of a repeat in this evening’s meeting are understandably long due to the current gulf in quality between the sides, the desire to see a shock result is something Robbie Neilson believes has driven the demand for more Hearts games to be televised this season, with three of our opening four league games taking place on Friday nights in front of the cameras:

“The reason it’s on TV is because they expect an upset. They’re not putting it on because they expect us to go up there and win convincingly.”

Having watched the team squash Dundee, scrape them up off the ground and dispose of them in the bins on McLeod Street last week, there is a danger that Hearts supporters go into tonight’s game expecting a similar rout against what they perceive to be weaker opposition.

Yes, it’s a game we should be winning, but there is an element of caution to be had. Arbroath may be part-time and they may not count former Scotland internationals like Charlie Adam or Graham Dorrans among their ranks, but they have a handful of players who can still cause us problems, directed by one of the Scottish lower leagues’ canniest operators in Dick Campbell.

Drawing from past experience, this one carries all the hallmarks of the proverbial banana skin. It was this kind of fixture that caused us the most difficulty in the early stages of our last Championship campaign, dropping our first points of the season against Dumbarton at The Rock and snatching a late winner away to Alloa.

The phrase “difficult place to go” is often over-used when describing away trips in football but if last season is anything to go by, Gayfield Park is certainly no cakewalk for visiting sides, with the Red Lichties losing only three of their 13 home league games, one of which came against Neilson’s Dundee United. Even then, Neilson’s own experiences against Campbell’s side last season could hardly be described as plain-sailing, with the latter coming out on top in their most recent encounter at Tannadice courtesy of a solitary goal from an on-loan Craig Wighton (the pre-shaven headed, hat-trick scoring version no less).

Having suffered a 3-0 defeat in their opening game of the season against Raith last weekend, Campbell will be looking for his players to make amends. According to Danny Denholm, who played under Campbell at Gayfield between 2017 and 2019:

“Dick Campbell will be livid with his team’s result last week and he will be desperate to put that right. I guarantee you he would have had a long meeting on Monday night with his players to dissect their performance against Raith. He has high standards and he would have wanted to get everything out in the open.”

There was a time when such a result would not have been considered much of a shock. However, that level of disappointment at losing to a full-time team, Denholm maintains, is testament to the progression the club has made under Campbell in recent years. Part-time status is never considered an excuse for failing to beat these sides; Hearts, you sense, will be no exception.

Denholm therefore anticipates that his former boss will set Arbroath up in a compact 4-5-1 and look to test the Hearts back line by countering with quick balls in behind:

“Arbroath’s greatest strength is their organisation and every player’s willingness to work hard for the team. If they manage to counter well, they will be looking for Dale Hilson or Bobby Linn to cause bother. Hilson is quick, powerful and capable of scoring all kinds of goals, particularly if he makes runs beyond Hearts’ defence. Linn is equally adept with his left foot as he is with his right and he can give any full back in Scotland a torrid time on his day. He will come to get the ball in the wide areas before taking on the defender in a direct manner.”

If recent form acts as any kind of gauge, Hearts’ fortunes tonight will depend on how well they start the game. Already this season, we have seen the Jekyll and Hyde aspects of this side, albeit without suffering the consequences of the latter.

In the opening Betfred Cup group game at home to Inverness, we saw the players create but ultimately fail to convert a multitude of chances from open play, Jamie Walker’s penalty eventually securing the three points. In the second game, the players were noticeably slow out of the blocks, created very little and subsequently struggled to break down a stubborn Cowdenbeath side until a late corner was diverted into the net via the ever-reliable napper of Craig Halkett.

It may well be that those games were simply a case of shaking off the summer rust, as the two most recent wins have also seen us start much quicker, taking the lead within the first few minutes and amassing a total of nine goals. A similar start will therefore be crucial tonight if we are to undo any plans Arbroath might have to sit deep, absorb pressure and hit us on the break.

However, as Denholm also points out, the elements are likely to play an equally significant part in proceedings:

“In comparison with Tynecastle, Gayfield is smaller and more narrow, meaning Hearts’ creative players will have to be clever to find time and space. More notable than the quality of the pitch is the gale force winds that seemed to happen regularly when I was a player at Arbroath. When the wind picks up, it becomes a bit of a leveller and it can come down to who handles the conditions best.”

While much of the dialogue has revolved around the likes of Dundee, Inverness and Dunfermline as Hearts’ closest challengers this season, trips to more challenging environments like Gayfield will arguably shape our season as much as any fixtures against the traditionally “bigger” sides in the division.

And though there is unlikely to ever be a good time to visit the stadium known for being the closest in Europe to the sea, making that trip this early in the season when the weather is still reasonable and most of our squad is still relatively healthy (instead of in the depths of winter when injuries and/or infections have started creeping in) may well be to our advantage.

In an ideal world, we would all prefer to see high-octane, swashbuckling performances like the Dundee one every week, but in more testing conditions against well-organised, dogged opposition who aren’t necessarily interested in going toe-to-toe with us, aesthetics will be of secondary importance to the result itself.

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