At one point in the second half of Hearts’ draw with Partick Thistle on Saturday, Don Cowie could be seen gesturing to the home support to calm down in response to one of several outbursts of frustration from the Tynecastle stands.
Such moments are nothing new in these parts as, for instance, Sam Nicholson, felt compelled to do likewise in the very first competitive home game of the season, against FC Infonet.
The atmosphere inside the compact Gorgie ground is renowned as one of the best in Scotland when big rivals like Hibs, Rangers, Celtic and even Aberdeen are in town. On such occasions, a sell-out crowd will often take the lead and roar Hearts to greater heights. However, in lower-profile games such as Saturday’s, when the onus falls on the team to stimulate the fans, the mood can degenerate pretty quickly if things are not going to plan, causing a vicious circle in which players and supporters effectively unnerve each other.
This scenario is not exclusive to Tynecastle, of course, but, given the size of their support, the demands some place on the team, and the feeling that the fans are virtually on top of the pitch, the Hearts players tend to feel the heat more intensely than most in Scotland when their own people turn on them. Plenty who have pulled on a maroon jersey in recent times would testify to this.
Cowie, at 33, is the oldest player in the Hearts squad and understands that moans and groans from the sidelines are a normal part of football. His concern when things get tetchy is more for his younger colleagues – four of Hearts’ back five against Thistle were 22 or younger – than for the likes of himself. However, in deriving positives from the situation, the midfielder feels experiences such as Saturday can help strengthen both mentality and team spirit among the squad.
“It’s tough,” Cowie admitted, when asked what it’s like to be in the spotlight when things are not going well at Tynecastle. “It’s a tough environment when it’s like that but that’s part and parcel of football. You’ve just got to stick together when it happens. I’m a bit older so I can deal with it. I’m just delighted I’m playing football, so I just blank it and get on with it. But the thing you’ve got to remember is, it’s quite a young team and it can have a detrimental effect on younger players. I said to them after the game, that’s where we’ve all got to get round each other and stick together.
“I said to them ‘if anyone’s having a hard time, help them out’ because it can be a lonely place out there if things aren’t going well. We’re with each other every day – we make bonds and friendships, and that comes to the fore when you help each other through sticky situations like Saturday. I’m still learning and the rest of the team are still learning as well. Experiencing that sort of atmosphere makes you better and makes you stronger. If you can play in front of 17,000 people at Tynecastle at 20, 21 years old, that’ll stand you in great stead for the future.”
Cowie noted the difference in mood inside the stadium between the Partick game and the previous home match, when Rangers were defeated 2-0 amid a high-octane atmosphere. However, he recognises that in lower-key games such as Saturday’s, there is an onus on the Hearts players to give the crowd something positive to shout about. Thistle manager Alan Archibald admitted afterwards that a big part of his gameplan – which almost resulted in an away win – was to ensure the large home support became an advantage to the visitors rather than the hosts.
“If I was an opposition player at Tynecastle, I know what I’d be doing,” said Cowie. “I’ve heard people come here and say ‘try and quieten the crowd’, and that’s what they try and do. As players, it’s up to us to try and give the fans something to get them excited and get them off their feet.
“It’s disappointing that things were so different compared to the last home game against Rangers. The atmosphere was unbelievable in that game and the fans were right behind us because we played high tempo and got in their faces. It’s a Catch 22 situation. We need to get the fans behind us by playing well. Unfortunately in the second half on Saturday, we weren’t able to do that. It’s not through a lack of effort – it’s just sometimes football doesn’t go your way. You get tough spells and that’s where you’ve got to rally together and see it through.”
After three games without a win, Cowie knows Hearts need to show their character to bounce back to form in Friday’s clash with Dundee at Dens Park. The Tynecastle side were in second place after beating Rangers at the end of last month, but after taking just two points from a possible nine, they have slipped seven points behind the resurgent Ibrox side over the past couple of weeks. The midfielder has seen Hearts emerge from a couple of sticky patches already this season, and is in no mood for panic.
“A few weeks ago, we won a massive game to go second but then all of a sudden after two draws and a defeat we’re seven points behind Rangers, so it’s disappointing,” he said. “We’ve now got three games in a week over the festive period and we’ll be looking to pick up a lot of points.
“Less than three weeks ago we were on the same points as Rangers, so that’s how quickly we can catch up with them. Credit to them – they were under a lot of scrutiny after the way they performed against us but they’ve bounced back with three great wins. That’s what we’ve got to do. Whenever we’ve had a wee dodgy spell this season, we’ve responded well, and hopefully we can do that against Dundee on Friday.”