Danny Grainger and Hearts can both take a long leap of progress this evening with a replay win over St Johnstone and a place gained in the William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-finals.
Grainger will tonight aim to complete his first full 90 minutes of action since defeat by Rangers at Tynecastle towards the end of October. He sustained a groin injury in early November that has stunted his progress since joining Hearts last summer and resulted in lonely hours in the gym recuperating, but he’ll continue his comeback at former club Saints this evening after starting in the league games against Celtic and Kilmarnock.
With a win in Perth, the Jambos could ignite a season plagued by problems by advancing to the last-eight of the after being held by Saints in the original tie at Tynecastle nine days ago. Left-back Grainger, who experienced limited opportunities under Craig Levein at Dundee United in 2008-09, kickstarted his career at McDiarmid Park during the following two campaigns before earning a move to Tynecastle. Grainger will hope the Perth ground can this evening have a similar effect on his long-term fortunes in maroon.
“I haven’t played as much as I would have liked, and injuries have had a lot to do with that,” said the 25-year-old. “The manager has shown a lot of faith in me by throwing me back in, especially with how well Ryan McGowan has done. ‘Gowser’ has been fantastic since I was injured, and I’m just happy the manager has put me back in and I just want to repay his faith by going on a good run now and getting a few games under my belt, helping Hearts finish as high in the league and get as far in the cup.”
The latter part of that quest continues for Grainger and Co tonight with the winner facing the prospect of a home quarter-final tie against St Mirren or Ross County.
The affable Cumbrian is aware that St Johnstone will be desperate to banish the memory of a 5-1 home defeat by Tayside rivals Dundee United three days ago, much in the same way Hearts battled to a 1-1 draw against Kilmarnock to salvage some pride following a 4-0 defeat at home to Celtic last Wednesday.
“It’s turning into the biggest game of our season so far,” said Grainger. “If we had an away draw in the quarter-final, it puts a bit of a dampener on things, but to get a home tie against a team you fancy yourselves against there’s more incentive to win the game.
“Looking at the Celtic game, it was probably the worst performance we’ve had this season and one we now need to bounce back from. With Rangers out and Celtic playing Dundee United, there’s a chance there will be another big team out. So, it’s a great chance for someone to get to the final. We’ve been handed quite a nice draw – and St Johnstone will see it like that as well. It’s a home tie against St Mirren or Ross County, so we’d fancy our chances.
“It’s a bit hard to look forward. St Johnstone’s going to be a hard game for us. Getting through tonight is the main thing. To be honest, I think we’d rather have St Mirren. Ross County would come down here and there’s not as much pressure on them. We’re just concentrating on getting through tonight’s game and we don’t care who we get really. We fancy our chances against anyone at home, not just St Mirren or Ross County.”
Back at the scene of their dismantling by Dundee United, St Johnstone possess the quality to bounce back, says Grainger, particularly with forward pair Francisco Sandaza and Cillian Sheridan in their ranks.
He said: “I still speak to people there – the likes of Murray Davidson and Liam Craig. I think it was just one of those games where they were trying to push for an equaliser when they were caught out. The boy Gary Mackay-Steven [for Dundee United] had a good game and created a lot of chances.
“I know when we were beaten by Celtic, you can’t wait until the next game to put it right. They’ll be looking to do the same tonight and there’s nothing better than a cup to try and put things right again. They have players there who have played in two semi-finals in the last two years, so they’ll be looking to do even better in the cup. They’ll be sick of being a hard luck story and will be pushing as hard as they can this year.
“Since I left, they’ve brought in a mix or youth and experience. Callum Davidson has come in and is a top left-back and has been his whole career. They’ve brought in Sandaza and Sheridan. I worked with Fran up at Dundee United and he’s a player who will always get you goals. He’ll not do a lot in a game and then he’ll score a goal. Big Cillian’s the same – he’ll put himself about all game and he’s a top player. You don’t play for Celtic if you’re a nobody. Cillian and Fran have a good partnership and are very dangerous in there and, with the quality in the midfield with the likes of Liam Craig and Murray Davidson, they have a good team. We’ll have to be well aware of their threat.”
Paulo Sergio, like his Saints counterpart Steve Lomas, has no little quality to call upon within his Hearts squad. Recently, the Portuguese has described his squad as thin, meaning his starting XI from game to game lacks freshness. Grainger, however, sees more strength in depth at Hearts than at many of the club’s SPL rivals.
“You look at the squad we’ve got and you look at the likes of Motherwell and Dundee United, they’ve got five or six boys who have recently been in the youth team on their bench,” said the Englishman.
“We have proven SPL players on our bench. Among those not even stripped, we’ve got players who can come in and do a job. We’ve lost Sutts, which I believe would be a big loss to anybody – not just to us. Sutts is a proven goalscorer in the SPL. You’ve got boys like Gary Glen and Gordon Smith who can come in and wear their hearts on their sleeve.
“I think we’ve got the depth there whereby we can progress in the cup and go on a good run towards the end of the season and get as close as we can to the Old Firm and Motherwell in the league table.”
The aim of a third-place finish has remained the target for Hearts since Grainger joined last summer. However, the player now finds himself in wholly different surroundings compared to when he signed for Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown eight months ago.
A dressing-room of lesser personalities may have crumbled under the early-season turmoil as former Sporting Lisbon boss Sergio took control in early August, but this stubborn Hearts squad have remained resilient, said Grainger.
“When you come to a club like Hearts and you look at where they’ve finished in the league and their cup history, you want to progress in your career,” he said. “The two years I had at St Johnstone were two important years for me. They had me back playing football, and I can’t thank them enough for that. Coming here, to progress my career and try to win things and play European football, is a great chance.
“With the change of manager, you can’t be stuck in your old ways saying, ‘I don’t really like it.’ I think the manager has put his own stamp on the team and wants us playing his way. We have adapted to his training methods and different things that we were not used to as players. It’s been a testing time for us all this season, and I think that’s credit to all the players.
“The boys who have played in recent months have proved that we’re close as a group. I think a lot of other clubs would have chucked the towel in, but I think our boys have stood up well to it.”
There are no trophies or medals in football that recognise bravery or mental strength, but those characteristics should serve Grainger and Hearts well as they bid to rise from their recent respective depths.