Anthony Brown sees parallels between this season and last for Hearts . . .
At this time last year, the Jambos juggernaut had just been set in motion.
A 1-0 victory at Aberdeen a year past Sunday would prove the catalyst for a season-defining run which saw Hearts win an incredible 11 out of 13 league matches. By January, Jim Jefferies’ rampant side resembled genuine title contenders, but a run-ending 4-0 defeat at Celtic allied to the loss of the influential Kevin Kyle removed the wind from their sails, and in the end they stumbled over the line in the battle for third.
The hope now in Gorgie is that the onset of October can once again prove to be the springboard for a successful Hearts season. There’s reason aplenty to suggest that could indeed be the case as several parallels can be drawn with this season and last up to this point.
Just like this term, Hearts had struggled to set the heather alight in the early months of the campaign. They’d won only two of their opening seven games and were in something of a mini crisis after exiting the League Cup away to First Division opposition (Falkirk) and losing 2-0 at home to a high-flying Motherwell side in the league. It’s safe to say everything in the garden was far from rosy.
Fast forward a year and it was much the same scenario, with September ending in despair after consecutive defeats to First Division Ayr in the League Cup and St Johnstone in the SPL. The prospect of a having a crack at the top two was merely a pipe dream as questions were asked of manager Paulo Sergio. Where last season it was the home form that was the problem – they failed to win any of their first four at Tynecastle – this term the away form was the issue, with no wins in their first five on the road.
Perhaps the only significant difference is that Hearts are in better shape now than they were at this time in 2010. Where last year they lost their pre-international-break clash at home to Old Firm opposition, this time they won it. Hearts threw away a 1-0 lead in the last nine minutes against Rangers on October 2, but exactly a year to the day later, they made no mistake in beating Celtic 2-0. Since following that up with another 2-0 win away to Dunfermline on Saturday, optimism is rife that Sergio’s resurgent side are ready to take the challenge to the big two, particularly beleaguered Celtic.
If they are to do so, they can take heart from the fact they are currently closer on points to both Rangers and Celtic than they were a year ago, despite the campaign – as a result of an earlier start – being three games further in than it was at this point last year.
After winning at Aberdeen on October 17 last year, Hearts were still 13 points behind Rangers and ten behind Celtic, who had a game in hand. Both members of the Old Firm were looking invincible, having won every game. This time round, Rangers, who visit Tynecastle on Sunday, are 11 points clear and Celtic just one, albeit with a game in hand. And the big two are looking a tad less invincible, particularly the Parkhead side.
Second-placed Motherwell, of course, also have to be afforded no shortage of respect, but they were also ahead of Hearts at this time last year.
By the time late January came, Hearts were two points behind eventual champions Rangers and seven behind Celtic with a game in hand and had virtually seen off Motherwell and Co in the race to be best of the rest. Their eyes were on loftier matters: splitting the Old Firm and possibly even challenging for the title.
In the end, their form went to pot and they were left to rue what might have been. But, as Hearts show signs of finding the type of consistency they haven’t managed since last January, the experience garnered last season will surely stand them in good stead if they harbour ambitions of giving the Old Firm a proper run for their money.
Further encouragement can be garnered from the additional strength in depth of the current Hearts squad which suggests the loss of any individual won’t have as detrimental an effect as Kyle’s absence did last season.
It will, undoubtedly, take an almighty effort – even repeating last season’s remarkable run of 34 points from a possible 39 may be asking a bit much – but evidence suggests the chance is there if Vladimir Romanov, Sergio and the Hearts squad genuinely feel ready to take the challenge to the big two.