Just under three years ago, Hearts travelled to Celtic Park viewed as outside contenders for the SPL title. It was January 2011 and Jim Jefferies’ side had just beaten Rangers at Tynecastle to make it ten wins from 11 league games.
They sat within seven points of Celtic with a game in hand and had no reason to fear a trip to Parkhead given that they had won on three of their previous ten trips there.
In the end, a Hearts side containing Marian Kello, Lee Wallace, Marius Zaliukas, Rudi Skacel, Ryan Stevenson, Ian Black and David Templeton was obliterated 4-0 and Celtic marched to the first title of the Neil Lennon era. For Hearts, that demoralising night in Glasgow’s east end set in motion a spiralling decline in league performance which they have been unable to halt. Jefferies’ side endured a dismal finish to that season and ended up just scraping third place ahead of Dundee United. The following season Hearts limped to fifth under Paulo Sergio and then they finished tenth under John McGlynn last term before being cut adrift at the bottom this time round as a result of having to fight a 15-point deduction with a skeletal squad.
Of course, rather than any failure on the part of the various managers and players at Tynecastle in that time, the slump which has seen them go from title contenders to relegation certainties in less than three years is almost exclusively down to the financial implosion which has led to every player from that match three seasons ago having left the club and only eight – Jamie Hamill, Mehdi Taouil, Danny Grainger, John Sutton, Craig Beattie, Stevenson, who returned after a spell at Ipswich, Michael Ngoo and Danny Wilson – coming into Tynecastle.
As Hearts have plummeted down the table over the past few years, their ability to hold their own against Celtic has diminished just as rapidly. Starting from that 4-0 Parkhead defeat three seasons ago, the last ten league meetings between the sides have seen Celtic rack up an aggregate score of 29-4 against Hearts, and that doesn’t include the seven goals the champions put past Hearts in the Scottish Cup earlier this month. To put Celtic’s recent dominance against Hearts into context, in the ten league matches between the sides prior to that landmark encounter, the Parkhead outfit had only managed a 14-8 aggregate score against the Jambos.
In short, it’s pretty clear that, while Hearts, not so long ago, used to thrive on playing Celtic, they now wilt when coming up against the best team in the country. Or, to look at it in a different light, Celtic now view Hearts matches with more relish rather than ever. While the gap between the two sides is now as wide as it’s ever been on the pitch, the rivalry off the pitch has never been so hostile. The absence of Rangers from the top flight seems to have intensified the hatred between Celtic and Hearts supporters, with several unsavoury incidents turning this into arguably the biggest powderkeg fixture in the land these days.
While some relegation candidates might get away from Parkhead with a narrow defeat due to the lack of intensity surrounding the match, Hearts, despite their current beleaguered state, are still widely viewed as a big and antagonistic fish in the eyes of their old adversaries. Every other club still takes extra satisfaction from beating them.
This leaves them more susceptible to the type of pulverising they took a few weeks ago and the worry for everyone at Tynecastle is that something similarly grotesque could be about to happen when the two sides reacquaint at Celtic Park this weekend. Locke’s weary, confidence-shorn young side are increasingly resembling a lower-league team punching above their weight just to compete in games – particularly against the stronger sides in the league - and it’s hard to make a credible case for them taking anything from Saturday’s lunchtime trip into the lions’ den. You get the feeling everyone at Hearts would privately settle for a 3-0 defeat if they were offered it right now.
No one will envy the job of Gary Locke this week, that’s for sure.