FROM THE HEART

Paulo Sergio
Paulo Sergio
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They are in danger of exhausting their capacity for thrilling comebacks, but Hearts will have to plunder deeper into their well of resilience in order to achieve the coveted title of “best of the rest” in the SPL.

The past week has seen Hearts increase their tally of league points and progress to the quarter-final stage of the Scottish Cup. Had the referee at each of their last two games, at Kilmarnock and St Johnstone, decided on a minute less of injury time, Hearts would not be sitting as close behind Motherwell – the margin between third and fourth is six points – nor would the Gorgie club be contemplating a last-eight cup tie against St Mirren at Tynecastle early next month.

More pertinently, it is a resolve and stubborn desire that has earned the men in maroon two late goals in as many games of late. Suso Santana’s header in the 92nd minute rescued a point at Rugby Park, then the same player – in the same minute – supplied enough of a cutting edge to earn a penalty, dubious or not, against St Johnstone earlier this week. As if Jamie Hamill’s subsequent success from the spot to force extra time did not supply sufficient drama for the impressive Hearts travelling support, Marius Zaliukas then unearthed a winning goal three minutes before penalties would have been due.

“There’s a fighting spirit, a never-say-die attitude among the Hearts players,” said Allan Preston, the former Jambos midfielder who now works as a radio football pundit. “After they got the penalty at St Johnstone, there was a melée, and it was about two minutes for Jamie Hamill to wait – and with the last kick of the ball. He had the strength of character to take the ball straight away – I saw him running for the ball as soon as the penalty was given – and thankfully he stuck it away.

“There is certainly a siege mentality there. They’re starting to show a real togetherness and team spirit among the players and staff. The fans love the manager, Paulo Sergio, and there’s an attitude of ‘let’s all hang in here together’. At St Johnstone, the players looked dead on their feet. They’ve had four games in ten days, which is a lot. They looked knackered, but then you look at the performance of guys like Andy Webster and Zaliukas, and Stephen Elliott ran his socks off. There’s a professional attitude in every one of them where they don’t want to get beat.”

Such visible commitment from his players has proven a blessing to Jambos boss Sergio, who has not played down his dissatisfaction at seeing players depart in January to leave him with a reduced pool to choose from amid a busy calendar of matches ahead of the season’s final three months.

“Every time Jamie MacDonald was kicking the ball you could see he was feeling his right hip,” said Preston, having observed the Hearts goalkeeper against St Johnstone. “Zaliukas was stretching his legs [presumably due to tiredness], and Stephen Elliott, Scott Robinson and David Templeton all picked up knocks but played on. People out there think the players have plenty time to recover, but the energy levels used in the last two weeks are incredible. Even with the transfer window going and John Sutton and Ryan Stevenson leaving, I think Hearts have a reasonable squad, with Gary Glen and Gordon Smith who can play up front. Darren Barr and Andrew Driver weren’t stripped against St Johnstone and I can still name another five or six who weren’t in the squad that night and who could play a part.”

Preston believes relative strength in depth could play in favour of Hearts against opponents, including Motherwell, in the coming weeks. The Jambos go head-to-head with their rivals for third place on Saturday at Fir Park.

“Hearts have better strength than most clubs in the league – certainly Motherwell, who have been lucky in that they’ve had no injuries or suspensions. If Motherwell lose players in the coming weeks, it’s about how they react to that.

“I don’t think you can approach this type of game thinking you’d be happy with just a point. Hearts have the players to go and win the game, as have Motherwell.

“Henrik Ojamaa has given them a freshness, an appetite and a hunger that you need at this stage of the season. It’s Motherwell’s to lose just now, but Hearts never give up and will have the appetite to try and get third place.”

Preston, below, believes Sergio, who arrived as Hearts manager a little more than six months ago, has developed a more streetwise attitude towards Scottish football – and that the club’s supporters are key to driving the Portuguese and his players further forward.

“In the quarter-final of the Scottish Cup, all you can ask for is a home draw and they’ve got that against St Mirren,” said Preston. “They’ve played well against St Mirren at Tynecastle, having beaten them 5-2 after going down to ten men with Rudi Skacel’s hat-trick. I think Sergio’s learning as well: he underestimated Ayr United before the League Cup defeat there and has realised you can’t win the league unless you’re Celtic and you can’t win the cups unless you have a strong team out on the pitch.

“The Hearts fans, 1400 of them on Valentine’s night in Perth, were fantastic. With Hearts kicking into the end they were all sitting in, they’re going to urge you on.

“The Rangers fans are out in force backing their club just now and the Hearts fans are doing the same. You don’t support individuals, you support your team.”