If Gary Locke was in any doubt about the size of the task facing him in his dream job as manager of Hearts, then he was given full confirmation in Sunday’s League Cup final humbling at the hands of St Mirren.
Had the Tynecastle side been able to capitalise on their early dominance when St Mirren’s players were frozen stiff with stage-fright, things would have looked a whole lot rosier today. However, for all that victory would have given everyone at Hearts a much-needed lift, it would also have had the effect of papering over serious cracks and promoting false hope in terms of what lies ahead in the immediate future.
The harsh truth is that, as soon as St Mirren, currently the second-worst team in the SPL, decided to embrace the occasion, Hearts couldn’t cope with them. It wasn’t a lack of passion, desire or gameplan that cost the Gorgie side. It was, as has been the case through most of this dire season, simply that their opponents had more quality and guile than them, particularly in attack.
I wrote in the dying embers of John McGlynn’s doomed reign that Hearts were down at the bottom of the SPL because they had one of the weakest squads in the league, not because of McGlynn’s perceived failings. This didn’t go down well with the former manager’s critics, many of whom insisted Hearts would have been higher up the league had he played 4-4-2 and been a bit more positive, charismatic and passionate. However, even though the approach has changed markedly under Locke, the fundamentals remain the same: Hearts, in the current circumstances, are incapable of performing much better than they are.
Although Locke’s implementation of 4-4-2 has provided a bit more tempo than there was under McGlynn’s more patient approach, the end result will generally be the same as long as the manager is unable to call on pace in the final third, wingers who can provide consistent and telling delivery and strikers who have a bit of subtlety and ruthlessness about them.
As is so often the case in modern football, too many Hearts players have been hyped way above their station as a result of doing well in the youth ranks or at their previous club. Playing in the Hearts first team is an entirely different proposition to shining for the Hearts or Liverpool youth teams or to looking the part in front of 4000 fans at Motherwell or Kilmarnock.
There are perhaps only a handful of players at Hearts just now who can be relied upon when the going gets tough, and that will be a major worry for Locke. With Marius Zaliukas likely to exit in the summer, Locke will be praying he is able to retain Andy Webster.
Either way, the manager won’t be complaining, though. He’s been at Hearts long enough to understand the current situation. Uncertainty reigns, and as much as that makes Locke’s managerial baptism all the more difficult, he is resilient enough to handle it. He knows that, regardless of circumstances, the knives will be quick to come out if he is unable to generate a positive reaction to Sunday’s setback in the remainder of the season.
While most of his fellow SPL managers will now be pondering who will be coming and going for next season, with Hearts in a state of flux off the field, Locke has no clue how the land will lie come the summer. There’s a fair chance his squad will look even weaker in a few months’ time than it does now, which is a worrying prospect. All Locke can do is muddle through, try to galvanise his players, suss out which ones are worth retaining, and perhaps creep up a few places in the league and restore a sense of optimism.
All of this is against the backdrop of trying to establish the best way forward. The aforementioned formation dilemma has been rife at Tynecastle for years now. The club have been encouraging a 4-3-3/4-5-1 approach from their academy, yet large regiments of fans continue to be entrenched in their views that 4-4-2 is the only way to go, even though most good teams ditched this wooden approach years ago. As Hearts’ midfield were being overrun in the second-half on Sunday, it was hard to escape the notion that they might just have been better-served by the 4-5-1 formation they used to such good effect in the semi-final against Inverness.
There is plenty for Locke, left, to ponder, but, as much as he’ll be hurting right now, the manager will be as enthusiastic and driven as ever in attempting to keep his ailing club on an even keel.