As the horror show of season 2019-20 unfolded in front us, one of many concerns that lingered in Hearts fans’ minds was how it would all be laid bare for the rest of Scottish football fandom’s amusement in a three-part series on BBC Scotland.
Football documentaries have crept into the game’s cultural zeitgeist over the last few years, with some figuring higher on the cringe-scale than others. The car crashes, most notably Netflix’s Sunderland ’Til I Die – a two-series account of Sunderland’s plunge into the third tier of English football – tend to endure longer in fans’ memories and discussions, as well as on their social media feeds, where they achieve relative immortality as memes and gifs.
This is perhaps where much of my own fear came from in relation to our own small-screen exposure. Given the amount of schadenfreude I felt while watching the Sunderland documentary, I couldn’t ignore the feeling that karma was taking its toll during our own season of struggles.
And yet, having watched the finished product, there was really nothing to fear. There were no cringeworthy Brent-like figures in the mould of Martin Bain or Charlie Methven (though Austin MacPhee’s wedding day three-piece was a close runner) and no game-by-game account of our relegation dogfight, with some of the worst results missing the cut entirely.
In fact, the tone seemed so out of kilter with a club staring down the barrel of relegation that many neutrals tuning in for a chuckle at Hearts’ expense would surely have been left disappointed. Bored, even. Hearts fans themselves would also have felt a little less apprehensive about its content, considering we were in the middle of an unbeaten run and had disposed of our city rivals in a cup semi-final by the time it aired.
However, while the laughs were at a premium in the documentary, it would be some stretch to say we’ve enjoyed the last one, having witnessed the latest on-field instalments of the Heart of Midlothian comedy caper over the past week and a half.
Two woeful performances in that time – away to Dunfermline in the league and Alloa in the Betfred Cup – make it hard not to revise the interpretation of our season so far. This isn’t some knee-jerk, entitled reaction to our first defeats of the season, the likes of which we all saw escalating outside Parkhead on Sunday night, but an accumulation of concerns that have been there throughout. Concerns that, when highlighted by anyone during our unbeaten run, were often dismissed as unnecessary pessimism by “typical moaning Hearts fans”.
When you’re winning, it’s much easier to dress up sub-par performances as “grinding out results”, “winning ugly” and “the mark of champions”, assuming sub-par performances aren’t the norm and you’re also winning convincingly on other occasions. Hearts have not been winning well though. In fact, most of our wins this season have seen us up against it in the closing stages, clinging to a single-goal lead against teams we really should have put to the sword much earlier in the game.
That’s tolerable if you can see steady improvement, but if the past two results on the road are anything to go by, results have only caught up with the performances and the same old issues that have plagued us for three or four seasons are still there: attacking impotence, ponderous transition play, lack of pace and width, ineffective midfield partnerships and players underperforming to name just a few.
Of course, it is still relatively early in our season and with the squad and resources we have at our disposal, I’m still highly confident we’ll win the league, but the fact the situation even has to be spoken about in such terms says a lot for how low the bar has dropped.
It’s a drop that is reflected in so much of the rhetoric we hear from figures at the club. While he may well be adopting a different tone with the players behind closed doors, Robbie Neilson’s early-season public bullishness appears to have softened considerably, to the extent that abject defeats at this level are being mitigated with complaints about refereeing decisions or worse still (as was the case with the Dunfermline defeat) explained away as inevitabilities, while our own team’s shortcomings receive comparatively less attention.
The defeats themselves are not the main issue here. While there was bold, frankly disrespectful talk of going the Championship season unbeaten, no reasonable fan was setting that as the minimum expectation. Even shock cup defeats such as the Alloa one are known to happen. However, it’s the fact that these results do not appear to be considered shocks at Hearts anymore. For a club that fought so doggedly to avoid dropping into the second tier, there appears to have been an alarming conformity to second-tier standards.
The same can be said for some of the players who have arrived at the club in recent years, something that was epitomised by Mihai Popescu’s interview prior to the Dunfermline trip when he spoke about the expectations that come with playing for a club of this size.
Though the pressure of playing for Hearts has not changed over the years, it feels as though the players’ capacity to handle that pressure has. It’s all very well talking (as many have in the past) about the level of expectation at a club like Hearts, if the player is the type of character who thrives on it and channels it positively into his performances. When they churn out those soundbites in between nervous, meek performances, however, it becomes a major concern.
It is obviously commendable when players feel they can talk openly about their performance-related struggles – as Jake Mulraney and Sean Clare both did at points during their Hearts careers – but when you have players making frequent references to expectations and continually falling below them, it also reflects poorly on our recruitment.
Players have often been criticised for labelling Hearts and other Scottish teams as stepping stones to bigger things, but there is a self-belief and confidence about that attitude that is far more appealing than what we’ve been accommodating in our squads since exiting administration: players for whom Heart of Midlothian seems to represent such a formidable step up; players who almost appear grateful to be given a chance at this level; players who probably shouldn’t be here as opposed to ones who believe they deserve to be.
One of the few expected upsides of the Covid shutdown was the grace period it afforded new signings and survivors of last season to rebuild confidence and gel as a unit away from the volatile atmosphere of a packed Tynecastle. If they are still struggling to perform in the comparatively subdued environment of an empty stadium, the eventual return of supporters does not bode well unless notable improvements are made between now and then.