There’s a growing sense of invincibility building around Hearts as the rampant leaders bid to extend an eight-game unbeaten run in the Championship at Alloa tomorrow.
Head coach Robbie Neilson, perhaps trying to curb expectations slightly, may have suggested last week that it was inevitable his team would lose a game at some point. However, his bullish players, buoyed by averaging more than three goals per game, are intent on proving him wrong.
On the eve of last weekend’s trip to Queen of the South, Kevin McHattie answered “definitely” when asked if he felt Hearts could go through the entire league campaign without defeat. And today, Adam Eckersley, a naturally confident chap anyway, reaffirmed the growing belief in the Hearts camp when he suggested that the only danger of the maroon juggernaut coming off the rails any time soon would be if Hearts allowed themselves to waver from the high standards they’ve set so far this season.
“Who is there out there who can stop us, really? Especially when we find our game and knock the ball about like we can,” he said in an interview with the Evening News. “We’ve got plenty of good players who can score goals and we’ve got a solid defence so I don’t see why we can’t keep this run going and keep doing to teams what we’ve been doing the last few weeks. I don’t want to disrespect other teams, but I think we’ve shown we’ve got nothing to fear in this league.
“It’s up to us and whether we can keep turning up every week. On our day, I don’t think any other team in this league can beat us. We don’t want this run to end. We want to keep it going right through Christmas and all the way to May, and hopefully we’ll still be in the same position then as we are in just now.”
Eckersley joined Hearts in August after six years in Denmark, where he felt he was “a little bit out of the way” in terms of receiving attention and exposure. He is certainly getting his chance to bask in the limelight now, however, after forcing his way into a Hearts side enjoying its best start to a season in nine years. The sense of euphoria around the resurgent Tynecastle club has been inescapable for the former Manchester United player. “We’re riding high at the top of the league so there’s a good atmosphere in the dressing-room,” he continued. “The lads are upbeat and everything seems to be going our way at the moment. I’ve been involved before with teams that are riding high and challenging for promotion and it seems to be the way that if you’re winning, everybody’s buoyant and positive in the dressing-room.
“If things are not going so well, it’s the opposite. I’ve been on both sides of it and it’s certainly nice to be part of things at Hearts just now because everything’s positive. It’s certainly the first time I’ve ever come straight into a team that’s killing teams with big scores like 5-1, 5-0 and 3-0. I’m not used to that, I have to admit. But it’s nice.”
Eckersley believes Hearts’ ultra-professional approach is helping them make a mockery of decent sides in the Championship. “We are not playing bad teams, we’re playing gritty teams,” he said. “It’ll be a gritty game tomorrow, like it was last weekend at Queen of the South. Even though we won 3-0, we had to work hard for it. Hearts, along with Hibs and Rangers, are one of the teams, without any disrespect, that the smaller teams really want to beat and they make it hard for you. They like to rub you up the wrong way and if they get under your skin, it can make it a really tough game. But if we stick to our plan and use our fitness, I don’t think many teams in this division can live with us.”
Eckersley’s passage into the starting XI has been smoothed by Neilson’s desire to rotate players on occasions. The head coach is not a stickler for keeping faith with a winning team, instead tweaking things on a weekly basis to ensure Hearts are operating at their optimum. The Englishman, whose first couple of outings came as a result of an injury to McHattie, benefited from the rotation policy last week when he was thrust straight into a team that had crushed Livingston the previous weekend. “The manager chooses the players he thinks can get the job done in each game,” explained Eckersley. “He’s bringing players in and out but that’s what you have your squad for. It’s not just about 11 players, it’s about a 20-odd-man squad and everyone’s going to play their part in hopefully taking us to promotion.
“Man United have rotated their team throughout the years and it’s not done them any harm. It’s not always about who the best players are, it’s about who has the best attributes to deal with the upcoming game and the manager seems to be good at picking the right people to fit each game. It’s resulting in three points most weeks.
“You need everybody to buy into it and accept why they’re being left out. Players should be disappointed when they’re not playing, but you’ve got to deal with it the right way because it’s part of being a professional. It’ll happen to everybody at some stage in their career and it’s certainly happened to me. You shouldn’t take it as meaning you’re not good enough. It’s just the way football is.”