MINDFUL of Aberdeen’s recent rampant form, the Hearts manager Gary Locke stated today that he is more concerned with what damage his players can cause at Pittodrie tomorrow. Locke is determined to attack in the north east and end his team’s run of seven defeats in the last eight league outings.
Confidence is flowing within the Aberdeen camp after four successive wins without conceding so much as a goal, but Locke stressed that neither he nor his players will harbour any trepidation stepping on to the field tomorrow afternoon.
The Edinburgh club are one of only three to have inflicted defeat on Derek McInnes’ rejuvenated side this season – the others being Celtic and Ross County – and Locke intends to be positive.
Given the defensive sloppiness which cost Hearts against St Johnstone last weekend, the forward-thinking approach may serve them best if they can seize the initiative at Pittodrie. Yet, to do so, Locke must devise a way to get at a rigid back four which is proving rather miserly. From 15 matches in all competitions this season, Aberdeen have conceded only eight goals.
Key players for Hearts, therefore, will be Ryan Stevenson and Callum Paterson. Stevenson has become the focal point of the forward line with goals against Motherwell and Hibs in recent weeks. Paterson’s speed and running power could be a useful weapon from deep. For Locke, it’s all about getting forward and into position to pose Aberdeen problems.
“Pittodrie is always a difficult place to go. I wouldn’t say it’s daunting, it’s just a hard place to play,” Locke told the Evening News. “With the way Aberdeen are playing at the minute, they’re doing as well as any team in the league. We watched them on Monday and they did really well against a very good Partick Thistle side. It will be difficult, but we’ve already beaten them this season, so there is certainly no fear going up there.
“We started the season with two very young strikers in Dale Carrick and Gary Oliver, but we didn’t have a recognised striker once John Sutton left. I always felt that area could become a bit of a problem for us. Ryan Stevenson has been great since he came back to the club. Callum Paterson has also put in a great shift up there, so I think we’ve got players who could cause Aberdeen one or two problems.
“Ryan played that central attacking role before under Jim Jefferies and Paulo Sergio and he also played in the wider positions. I had a look at the squad and we didn’t have many options. Ryan and Callum are the guys who had played there before. Both of them have done a great job considering it’s not their natural position. This season more than any, we’re having to ask players to do a job out of position. That’s just the way the squad is at the moment.”
Locke acknowledges Aberdeen’s defensive strength, which has underpinned their surge to second place in the Scottish Premiership. They sit just four points off league leaders Celtic ahead of tomorrow’s match, while Hearts are rooted to the bottom and 15 points adrift of second-bottom St Mirren.
“Aberdeen are solid and they do have a bit of pace at the back as well,” continued Locke. “It’s important we have players who can cause them problems, that’s the main thing. Callum can force defences back towards their own goal and Ryan can come and take the ball in to feet. Callum will run in behind and Stevo will come short, so we do have some different options.
“Jamie Walker and David Smith are also capable on their day of beating people and scoring goals as well. I think we have the boys who can make things difficult for Aberdeen.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Locke as winter sets in is keeping his young players believing they can avoid relegation. The onset of administration in June brought a stinging 15-point penalty for the start of the season, leaving a young and threadbare squad with a transfer embargo which will not lift until Hearts are out of administration.
Early-season optimism was heightened by wins over Hibs and that aforementioned success against Aberdeen. However, form since then has plummeted. One point from 24 indicates the hardship being endured by the Tynecastle support. Locke explained why he always expected a lean period at some point during this season.
“It’s hard going through it, but I’m a realist as well,” he said. “Looking at the squad at the start of the season, I knew we were going to have a difficult spell because it was so young. I didn’t think we would go on a run like the one we’ve been on of late, but I knew it would be difficult because it’s such a young team. Any coach or manager who has been involved in the game will tell you that.
“This isn’t an easy league and every game is a really hard shift. We have a young side who are always going to be learning. The only way they are going to learn is through the mistakes they’re making. It’s important we try to eradicate them. If we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
Pittodrie would be a fine place to find a pick-me-up performance.