Adam Eckersley doesn’t appear to get intimidated. If anything, he intimidates others on a football pitch.
The Englishman is ready for all the rancour and hostility that will come Hearts’ way at Ibrox this evening. His attitude is ‘bring it on’.
Unsettling Eckersley and his team-mates has proven difficult this year, underlined by their 13-point lead and unbeaten record after 20 matches in the Scottish Championship. They head to Glasgow tonight for a potentially pivotal game with a clear warning that they won’t feel daunted by Rangers’ physicality or aggression levels.
The clubs’ last meeting at Tynecastle in November resulted in Hearts players Kevin McHattie and Soufian El Hassnaoui suffering knee and ankle damage as a result of late challenges. Neither has kicked a competitive ball since.
Eckersley expects the same kind of uncompromising affair this time and is adamant Hearts will not back down in their quest to win the title.
“I don’t think it’ll be any different,” he told the Evening News. “I think there will be tackles going in just like there were at Tynecastle. Everybody is ready for that. They brought the heat last time at our stadium and I don’t expect anything different this time. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a game where I’ll definitely be getting stuck in. I’m excited for it.
“Each player in our team can look after himself in his own way. Collectively, we take care of each other. If one guy is down there are others supporting him. We will go out there and look after each other tonight. I don’t think we’ll have any problems.
“I think the guys who got injured last time were a little bit unlucky. There were some rough tackles going in, especially with Kev. I’m not saying it was a good tackle because it was a bad tackle, but I thought he was a bit unlucky to do his medial ligament.
“This is a very important game for us to make a stamp on the league. We can put our marker down and say: ‘We want this league. We want the title.’ That would put them out of touching distance if we do win tonight. I’m not saying the league would be won but we’d be very difficult to catch if we beat Rangers. That’s a huge motivation for us. You take three points tonight and it will go a hell of a long way to proving we are the best team in this league and one step closer to winning the title.
“The lads are motivated and everybody knows what’s at stake. Motivation will come naturally. Obviously Rangers are going to be fired up. They have to get a little bit closer to us to make it a fight for the top spot. We’ve got to go out there and do our jobs and I think that will be enough.”
Creating a 16-point gap at the top of the table would take Hearts out of Rangers’ sight. Tonight may be the last chance for the Ibrox club to mount a fightback and give themselves a serious tilt at winning the automatic promotion place to the Scottish Premiership. The stakes are high and every minute of the 90 will be fiercely competitive.
“We know there’s an opportunity there to go 16 points clear and that’s the only motivation we need,” said Eckersley. “We’re not really thinking about what anyone else is thinking about. We’ve just come off the back of a 5-1 win at Dumbarton. We played very well under the circumstances given the wind and we played some really good football.
“Last week was the perfect way to go into a game like this against Rangers. I don’t think we could’ve picked a better week.”
Whilst eager to match the opposition in a physical sense, Hearts fully intend to play their own brand of football at Ibrox. The wide pitch is expected to suit flair players like Sam Nicholson, who was influential in his team’s 2-1 win there on the opening weekend of the campaign.
“I think Ibrox will suit us if we can get some of our players on the ball, especially the younger ones who are good at one v ones,” continued Eckersley.
“We can expose a few of their players and if we do so I think they will have problems with us.
“Ibrox is up there with the best stadiums I’ve played in during my career. I’ve played at Parken, the stadium in Copenhagen. Brondby’s stadium was also a big one.
“I’m expected a good atmosphere tonight and I reckon, for viewers, it should be a good game to watch.”
The circus which has played out in Govan these last two years hasn’t registered too much at the other end of the M8. The Hearts players are well aware of Rangers’ financial and footballing problems but they are far from being consumed by them.
“I don’t really give what’s happening at Rangers too much thought,” said Eckersley. “I just focus on myself and the team I’m playing for. I don’t really read articles about what’s going on outside of my own little bubble. That’s the way I like to keep it.”
Perhaps that’s why he isn’t easily intimidated. Eckersley is as single-minded a footballer as you will find, and his train of thought is focused solely on victory this evening.