How John McGlynn must be cursing the thin margins that can define a football match.
Had David Wotherspoon’s speculative effort – Hibs’ only noteworthy attempt of Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie – not been turned into the net by a wicked deflection off Marius Zaliukas, the embattled Hearts manager would surely have a Scottish Cup replay to look forward to and all would be far rosier in the garden. As it is, he is instead battling to salvage the faith of an increasingly disillusioned support.
From the moment the draw was made, a fourth-round trip to face a vibrant Hibs side hungry to avenge last season’s Scottish Cup final always looked extremely hazardous for the Tynecastle side. Most people of a Hearts persuasion would have taken a replay beforehand.
The fact McGlynn’s side nullified the hottest striker in the country, Leigh Griffiths, and came within eight minutes of a creditable away draw, however, now counts for nothing in the eyes of his increasing band of critics. Of course, in the frenzied world of football, the bottom line is the end result, with little time for understanding and perspective. Instead of being praised for masterminding a decent result in a game Hearts were widely expected to lose, that deflection, in one fell swoop, has turned the focus on to the fact McGlynn and his backroom staff continue to overlook John Sutton and Gordon Smith at a time when they are struggling for goals.
Yes, Hearts, for all their defensive resolve and tidy ball retention, remain one of the least dangerous-looking sides in the SPL. To pin all the blame for their attacking shortcomings on McGlynn, however, is harsh in the extreme. Hearts have generally lacked attacking flair over the past five years, and have had a real dearth of prolific strikers since Andrius Velicka left, but they have always had midfielders such as Rudi Skacel, Bruno Aguiar, or even Andrew Driver, in his pomp, to give them the edge in tight games like Sunday’s. McGlynn doesn’t have any talismanic figure he can hang his hat on. Arvydas Novikovas is his one maverick-type, but doesn’t produce regularly enough.
If deploying a team in a 4-4-2 formation with whatever natural strikers you have at your disposal suddenly made things better, then every team would be doing it. The problem is Hearts don’t have any reliable strikers. John Sutton did well at Motherwell, but has been unable to do enough in the more high-pressure environment of Tynecastle to win over either Paulo Sergio or McGlynn and his staff. Ironically, indeed, it was just over three months ago that most Hearts supporters were lamenting Sutton’s ineffective performance in the 1-1 SPL draw at Easter Road.
Smith has shown flashes of class of over the past few years, but the fact fans are calling for two strikers who, in the grand scheme, have done very little at Hearts, pretty much sums up the problem. It’s much like the difficulty Csaba Laszlo encountered at Hearts, but he at least had the fortune to inherit two players in Driver (pre-injuries) and Aguiar who drove forward a team which, in essence, had no recognised striker.
It might be worth trying Smith and Sutton as a double act in attack, if only to appease the fans and give the Callum Paterson a rest. However, if a Dundee United team containing Johnny Russell and Jon Daly – two higher-calibre strikers – in a front two is only two points ahead of Hearts, then there is certainly no guarantee it will work.
There is scope for improvement in this Hearts team, however, and McGlynn is the man responsible for ensuring it happens. To me, his best bet lies in getting more goals from midfield. Scott Robinson, Mehdi Taouil and Ryan Stevenson all have goal-scoring potential and should be given more licence to start bursting into the box.
McGlynn’s critics would do well to remember that the revered Paulo Sergio was only four points better off at this stage last season with a far stronger squad. A win over Aberdeen this Saturday would take Hearts within three points of a Dons side who are generally considered to be having their best season in years.
Hearts, by contrast, are operating with their weakest squad of the Vladimir Romanov era and against a backdrop of major uncertainty. Fans’ frustration is understandable, but calling for the head of McGlynn, who is carrying out a thankless task, is plain ludicrous.