HEARTS travel west tomorrow seeking only their second victory at Ibrox in 16 years, and their first since 2004. The chances of an away win are increased with Rangers currently drowning in financial turmoil. But three points in Glasgow would merely enhance an already satisfying campaign for midfielder Ian Black.
Despite his team’s erratic results trend, Black is in the midst of his most consistent season yet. So much so that he is being openly touted for Scotland recognition by the Hearts manager Paulo Sergio and coaches Sergio Cruz and Alberto Cabral. They feel he could have been part of the national squad for Wednesday night’s friendly in Slovenia and their faith has helped Black take his game to a new level at Tynecastle.
His composure in central midfield ensures he is virtually a first-pick for Sergio when fit. That represents changed days from when the 26-year-old carried a reputation for having a fiery temper and not enough restraint on the field of play. Sergio and his assistants have transformed Black into a different player, one who is central to their style of play.
“I’ve been really happy with my form,” Black told the Evening News. “When I’ve been playing I think I’ve done well and the gaffer is obviously touting me for Scotland. My main concern is the club and pushing the team forward at Hearts to hopefully try and get us into Europe. I’m pleased with how I’m playing and, if the gaffer’s happy, then so am I.”
Black’s dependability comes despite a much-publicised drugs case hanging over him for much of the season. That was thrown out of court earlier this month, but there was no sign of it affecting his play in any case. “I’ve managed to concentrate on football this year and nothing else outside of it. I’ve been working extremely hard,” he continued.
“The gaffer and his assistants have helped because they let you go and enjoy it. They’re not like managers who scream at you from the side of the park and put you under pressure. They like you to go out, get on the ball and be comfortable. I enjoy playing under those circumstances. The gaffer knows where players are comfortable playing. He’s seen me play in centre midfield and he’s liked it. I enjoy playing there and if I keep doing the job then he’ll play me.”
Black will take an injection to numb the pain of bruised ribs ahead of kick-off tomorrow, such is his eagerness to take part. Rangers are vulnerable opponents with administration devastating the entire Glasgow club. Hearts intend to capitalise by recording only their second win at Ibrox since Allan Johnston’s hat-trick secured a 3-0 triumph in 1996.
Black, though, offered a note of caution to anyone expecting a weak home team to take the field. “Rangers will be tough,” he said. “They have a big squad with quality all the way through from youth level right up to the first team. It doesn’t matter what team they put it, they will be difficult. I’m sure the players will be professional about it. I know they’re in a bad situation but they got a good result last week despite all the problems.
“I would still say Rangers are favourites. We will go into the game and just enjoy it. If we can get a win, we’ll be happy. Records mean nothing. Rangers are a strong side and it will be an interesting game. The Rangers situation doesn’t really affect us. We just prepare for every game as normal. Rangers have their difficulties but that’s nothing to do with Hearts.
“You do have sympathy for their players because people’s livelihoods are at stake. Boys are sitting there not knowing what’s going to happen. They could be out the door or they could be staying. Players have families and that makes it more difficult. We went through stress here a couple of months ago and managed to come through it, and I’m sure they will. I still speak to Lee Wallace and he’s enjoying it through there. He’s managing to shut out what is happening.
“We’re grateful things have improved here. I’ve got a family and supporting them is my main concern. We’ve come through it and out the other side and I just hope Rangers come through it as well.”
As well as being content with his own contribution, Black feels Hearts are playing some decent football despite failing to win in the league since January 14. The only problem is goalscoring. “It’s just finding the net. I think we’ve done everything but score,” he admitted. “We haven’t had any luck in front of goal, hopefully that can turn this weekend. We’re all in it together and everybody wants to score. We don’t rely solely on the strikers because it’s a team game. Everybody is expected to chip in and it doesn’t matter who scores as long as we’re getting goals. Tomorrow, we want the tables to turn and start hitting the net.”