Gary Locke has surely now earned the right to remain as Hearts manager for next season.
As recently as a month ago, things didn’t look too promising for the Jambos boss, who had been harshly cast as the scapegoat by some fans as his ultra-young team, crippled by a 15-point deduction, hurtled towards the Championship. Amid criticism from sections of the support, Locke also had to endure the wretched indignity of speculation that he might be replaced at the end of the season.
However, any lingering doubts about whether or not the former Hearts captain is equipped to lead his boyhood club into a new era under Ann Budge’s ownership have surely been banished by the remarkable turnaround in fortunes he has effected since the turn of the year, with the Jambos’ excellent form over the last five games in particular providing strong evidence that his young team is responding positively to his leadership.
The general consensus of most people outside Tynecastle was that, as soon as they were hit by a 15-point deduction and forced to start the season with only four proven pros alongside a bunch of raw academy graduates, Hearts were relegated.
Even though it was desperately hard – humiliating even – for Hearts supporters to accept seeing their team routinely turned over 2-0 at home by the likes of St Mirren, St Johnstone and Inverness, it was always likely to be this way while the bulk of the squad acclimatised to playing first-team football for one of the biggest clubs in Scotland.
In hindsight, it seems that the first five months of the season was the bedding-in period for this young squad. Naivety, costly individual errors and low confidence levels were at the heart of most defeats. That is meant as no slight on the players; it is only natural that kids used to playing in the under-20 league would toil in their early months in the Premiership.
There would probably be a couple of things Locke, below, would do differently earlier in the season if he had his time again, but that could be said for every manager. Even then, it is hard to think of anything significant he could have done to prevent relegation. The fact the team is now flourishing proves that he was not the problem and not the hapless coach some of his critics portrayed him as.
The main hindrance to Hearts being genuinely competitive was simply that the young players were not ready to meet the demands of playing first-team football week in, week out. Dale Carrick was a prime example. Anyone who watched him last season and in the early days of this term could see that he couldn’t make an impact against the Premiership’s 6ft defenders. He needed months of solid gym work to get himself to a position where he could become a genuine threat in the Premiership.
Carrick and most of his young colleagues have grown physically and mentally into players who can now hold their own in the top flight and, without the pressure of trying to eat into a 15-point deficit, Locke is finally being allowed a reasonable chance to display his managerial prowess and get the best out of them.
The emergence of Carrick and Sam Nicholson has been crucial to Hearts’ renaissance, allowing Callum Paterson, who had to be deployed up front due to a lack of suitable options, to move back to right-back. This has subsequently released centre-backs Dylan McGowan and Jordan McGhee from the discomfort of playing at right-back.
The revival, in which they have lost only four of their last 13 league games since mid-January, has been about more than simply beasting players in the gym and adding Carrick and Nicholson to the mix, however. All the players now look far more at ease and have clearly improved under the tutelage of Locke, Billy Brown and Robbie Neilson.
Lesser groups, with a less-inspirational leader than the ever-ebullient Locke, out of contract in the summer, would have given up the ghost. Despite relegation, the manager has fostered an incredible spirit among his young squad and has managed to keep them playing as if they are in a title race. For Hearts to be just a point off seventh place if they didn’t have the 15-point deduction is a remarkable feat. They are also on course for one of their highest away-goals tallies of the past 16 years.
With their form at Tynecastle now improving and the defence looking far more assured, everything is coming together for Locke. The offer of a new contract would be a fitting reward for a man who has gone from strength to strength despite being subjected to the toughest managerial baptism imaginable.