Hearts put in a thoroughly dominant performance against Dunfermline last Saturday and, spearheaded by Stephen Elliott, it provided the perfect pre-Christmas pick-me-up for the Gorgie club and the Irish striker.
Manager Paulo Sergio sang the praises of his lone attacker, whom he had preferred to Ryan Stevenson for the game, after an individual display of relentless chasing, neat flicks and a predatory instinct that led to the Jambos’ all-important opening goal.
A single such display is far from the making of the man, but Elliott’s performance at least presented Hearts fans with encouragement that he may be the one to fill the demanding role of solitary striker, given that Ryan Stevenson – although he has performed admirably in the position when called upon – is predominantly a midfielder, and John Sutton is seen by many to lack mobility.
Should he maintain his place and influence in the role, Elliott could transform his and Hearts’ season. The 27-year-old began this season in ominous form, with no goals in his opening six games.
On each of those half-dozen appearances, he either emerged from the bench or was substituted after starting, indicating either a lack of fitness or – in the eyes of first Jim Jefferies and latterly Sergio – poor form.
On only the second occasion – after the Edinburgh derby – in which was handed a full 90 minutes this term, Elliott opened his goal account against Inverness in early September, forcing home a late equaliser to earn Hearts a point in the Highlands. In the following two games he started but was replaced late in the game, then dropped to the bench from September onward.
Patience among players, a trait Sergio was keen to extol after the club’s most recent victory, proved key to Elliott’s chances of breaking into the team once more and his quiet diligence reaped dividends with a first start in almost three months – and a goal to boot – three days ago at Tynecastle.
“This shows that, if you are patient, you will get your chance,” said the coach, with a not-so-subtle nod to the recent decision by winger Andy Driver to hand in a transfer request.
“I am delighted with everybody, but especially Stephen Elliott. He hasn’t played much, but he is a player I really believe in.
“I want them to be focused and happy and I am pleased for them today in difficult times – and we must fight and show we are not cowards.”
Elliott total goal tally in maroon reached double figures with his strike against the Pars, his second goal this season. His return in front of goal has been somewhat sporadic, and he hit eight goals in more than 30 games last season, his first north of the border following a seven-year grounding in England that began as a youngster at Manchester City. After initial success at Sunderland – with his 15 goals helping the Black Cats to the Premier League – Elliott toiled, on the whole, at a host of English sides. Latterly, after falling out of favour at Preston North End, has was desperate to benefit from regular football and, in summer last year, duly ingratiated himself at new club Hearts with a debut derby goal in a 2-0 win over Hibs.
Another former Sunderland team-mate, Kevin Kyle, welcomed Elliott to Tynecastle with open arms a year-and-a-half ago. Kyle’s assessment of the Irishman at the time bears no little resemblance to the diligent display of Hearts’ lone forward in Saturday’s victory over Dunfermline.
“Stephen is more than a box player and his greatest asset is his sharpness,” Kyle said in August 2010. “He’s a very nimble striker, can turn quickly and I’m sure he can definitely be a success here. He has scored some great goals in his career and he has a lot in his locker. I am delighted he is here.”
Although he could hardly claim “greatness” after a close-range finish for his early goal against the Pars, Elliott, like any striker, will feel his shoulders a little less weighed down by the expectation to be prolific in front of goal. Certainly, if his attempted overhead-kick later in the first-half is a measure of renewed confidence, Elliott will prove a handful for the Motherwell defence this weekend at Tynecastle.
Always a willing runner, he appeared at ease on Saturday when faced with the task of covering the final third of the pitch. Perhaps it is because his perpetual motion was not stunted by a partner in attack; Elliott devoured the space afforded to him by the lack of team-mates and the often-static Dunfermline defence. Some strikers “feed off” their partner to good effect, but Elliott appears to thrive as his team’s only option up front.
He met long balls forward from team-mates to perform neat lay-offs and was strong enough to hold the ball up when required. The second half provided the most telling example of his ability to “spin off” a defender with some fleet-footed trickery and a quick turn of pace.
When employed as part of a two-some in attack, Elliott has worked in the shadow of some illustrious Premier League strikers, with the likes of Dwight Yorke (at Sunderland) and Silvan Ebanks-Blake (at Wolves) having benefited from Elliott’s trademark – and, in many quarters, unsung – willingness to craft and create openings through his tireless running.
“I was surprised Stephen did not become a consistent scorer in the Premiership,” admitted Brian Kerr earlier this year, the former Republic of Ireland manager having introduced Dublin-born Elliott to his country’s youth set-up a decade ago. “I was also a little disappointed he seemed to be drifting down the leagues because I like him a lot. He’s a good lad, honest in his work-rate and clever in the use of his body strength.
“I texted him when he signed for Hearts to wish him well and told him it could be a great new start for him. So I’m delighted to see he has been scoring goals.
“He’s fit again and playing first-team football. It’s important he pushes on from this and performs consistently so his confidence can return to the levels of five years ago.”
Hope has arrived in the form of his most recent showing, but the pressure is on Elliott to maintain such quality in his play. He will turn 28 in January and is approaching a stage of his career where footballers are often said to reach their prime. Sergio and the Hearts support liked what they saw on Saturday, and now it is time for the Irishman to seize his chance and show more of the same.