As JOHN McGLYNN continues in his struggle to convince his increasing number of doubters that he is equipped to steer Hearts through these stormy waters, it is hard to escape the feeling that this weekend’s League Cup semi-final showdown with buoyant Inverness is the most crucial so far of his reign as Tynecastle manager.
If the Edinburgh outfit can somehow find a way of reaching the final of the competition for the first time since 1996, it would suddenly add some much-needed purpose to a campaign which, but for the rousing Europa League encounters with Liverpool, has hitherto been highly underwhelming. Victory over the Highlanders would also entitle McGlynn to far more respect from a group of critics who have, in my view, struggled to grasp the magnitude of the restraints he is operating under.
Lose it, however, and the noise from his detractors will only get louder. It was the Scottish Cup defeat to an off-form Hibs team early last month which did most damage to his stock. In short, the prospect of two cup exits at Easter Road in quick succession, allied to languishing ninth in the SPL at the tail end of January, wouldn’t be good for any Hearts manager.
For a man who doesn’t have a derby win to cling to, a semi-final victory against a side 11 points ahead of Hearts in the SPL would be the type of genuine crowd-pleasing result McGlynn could desperately do with to revive his reign and his team’s season.
Remarkable as it seems, Inverness are currently everything Hearts aspire to be. For the first time in the history of the two clubs, the Highlanders will be able to call on a better team on paper than Hearts. With Darren Barr and Ryan Stevenson suspended, arguably the only players available to McGlynn this weekend who would get into the current Inverness starting XI would be Jamie MacDonald, Andy Webster, Marius Zaliukas, Danny Wilson and possibly Callum Paterson.
Flip that the other way and arguably Inverness’s entire first-choice XI, with the exception of the centre-backs and goalkeeper, would get into the current Hearts side. For all their early promise, Hearts’ burgeoning band of youngsters remain largely unproven at first-team level.
For the likes of Jason Holt, Dylan McGowan, Kevin McHattie and Paterson, who are not used to winning first-team matches on a regular basis, all to be thrown together into a semi-final against the most vibrant side in the division – Inverness have scored more than twice as many goals as Hearts this season – is hardly ideal from the Edinburgh club’s perspective.
This is the way it is, however, and this is why I feel the criticism of McGlynn from many Hearts supporters has been way over the top. His increasingly-depleted team is only six points worse off than the esteemed Paulo Sergio’s – complete with Ian Black, David Templeton and Rudi Skacel – was at this stage last season.
McGlynn is persistently criticised for not playing 4-4-2, yet the 4-5-1 formation Hearts have generally been playing is the one favoured by Sergio and, perhaps more significantly, Inverness manager Terry Butcher, whose side are the top scorers in the league with a mammoth 47 goals. One up front is not exactly proving a negative approach for the Highlanders, is it?
The fundamental difference between the teams is that, because Butcher has been given the freedom to sign the players he wants, he has been able to achieve a more balanced and, crucially, potent squad than the defender-heavy pool McGlynn has been left with. Indeed, there are several SPL clubs who, as a result of recruiting more efficiently in the past, have far better attacking units than Hearts.
If McGlynn had a striker of Billy McKay’s calibre, or even a goal-scoring midfielder like Andrew Shinnie, it is reasonable to assume that they might be far closer to – or even ahead of – Inverness at present. This is a point many of the Hearts manager’s critics are still finding hard to grasp when they decry his record so far.
While Hearts have been reasonably strong at home in recent months, it is McGlynn’s away form which has prompted most scorn. Yet the current team, despite only scoring a paltry eight goals on the road so far, have still netted one more away goal than Sergio’s vintage had managed by the 22-game mark last term. Sergio ultimately led Hearts to fifth last season, a position Hearts are only five points adrift of at present.
Of course, what transformed the Portuguese from average and oft-criticised Hearts manager – in league terms, he fared worse than the much-maligned Csaba Laszlo – to legend, was the fact he ended up with the Scottish Cup in his clutch.
With this in mind, victory on Saturday would go a long way to improving the landscape for McGlynn, a far more accomplished manager than he is currently being given credit for.