Anthony Brown: Hearts woes have made race for third interesting

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AHEAD of the current SPL season back in July, it seemed almost inconceivable that Hearts wouldn’t finish in the top three.

Indeed, on the eve of the campaign, my preview in the Evening News contained the following dribblings: “Hearts, having strengthened, look the only side equipped to offer any kind of challenge to the big two. As a result, it would be a remarkable surprise if they didn’t secure at least a third-place finish.”

This was based on the fact then-Hearts manager Jim Jefferies had made some shrewd acquisitions to supplement a squad which had finished third the previous season, while most of the other sides had been weakened over the summer.

The landscape at Hearts has changed dramatically over the past six months, however, and it wouldn’t be such “a remarkable surprise” now if the Tynecastle side failed to finish in the top three. Indeed, such has been the upheaval at Hearts – managerial change, late wage payments and talk of firesales – since the season kicked off, it will be a superb feat if they do finish third.

It’s all in stark contrast to this point last season, when they had third all but sewn up.

The off-field upheaval at Hearts has been troubling to witness, but the self-inflicted obstacles which have prevented them giving the Old Firm any kind of challenge have certainly made the battle for third more intriguing this time round.

With three teams – Hearts, St Johnstone and Motherwell – locked together on 35 points and another couple – Dundee United and Kilmarnock – eight points further back, it’s hard to pick a winner.

Motherwell, third for the bulk of the season, are odds-on favourites to finish best of the rest behind the Old Firm, but their home form is ropey and they have lost their early-season momentum. They do, however, have two games in hand over Hearts, starting with tonight’s winnable clash at home to Dunfermline. Hearts still possess the third-strongest squad in the division on paper and, even if they do lose a host of players this month, they have a resilience about them which means they are better placed than most to soldier on regardless of setbacks. They also have a manager in Paulo Sergio who is proving adept at guiding them through stormy waters.

St Johnstone are the dark horses and, as long as they keep Fran Sandaza beyond the end of the month, they will have a chance. With Hearts’ momentum having been halted in Inverness, Saints are currently the form team in the race for third.

United came with a sensational late surge to run Hearts close last season, and they could yet haul themselves into contention again. They are in decent form and, although they are not as strong as last season, they are still well capable of overhauling an eight-point deficit. Killie probably don’t have the same potential for consistency to get themselves involved, but even the previously-hapless Aberdeen seem to have got their act together and could yet get into the mix.

Considering the squad they started the season with, Hearts should have been looking at being perhaps a dozen points clear of their rivals for third by now. The fact their off-field woes have prevented them doing so means that, unlike last year, the SPL has a potentially riveting race for third on its hands.