MUCH as Hearts were content reaching the League Cup quarter-finals in midweek, the victory over Queen of the South could not mask their defensive deficiencies. Ten goals have been shipped in four games and those in the club’s back line are far from happy with that statistic.
Dundee United are next up at Tynecastle and, with a forward line including Scotland squad members David Goodwillie and Gary Mackay-Steven, offer one of the most potent forward lines in the country.
In their last three outings, they have scored ten times, including Goodwillie’s midweek hat-trick in the 4-1 League Cup demolition of Partick Thistle.
The theme for tomorrow’s match would appear to be a dangerous attack against a young and inexperienced defence. Queen of the South, like Ross County and others before them, cut through Hearts with consummate ease on Wednesday evening to score three times before eventually losing on penalty kicks.
Dylan McGowan is aware of Hearts’ need to defend far more robustly following the 3-3 draw with the Championship club.
However, manager Gary Locke has precious few options to rejig his back four, so it will be down to McGowan and his colleagues to tighten up. United have shown they won’t hesitate to take advantage if they fail to do so.
“To score three goals at home, there’s no way we should be drawing the game and taking it to penalties,” said the Australian. “We’ll have a look at that so we can correct it and come back stronger.
“We’ve defended quite well since the start of the season but we’ve let that drop a bit. The two late goals against Ross County were disappointing but all teams go through this dip, even the most experienced sides. We lost late goals last season with a much more experienced back four. We just have to put it right on the training ground and try to keep a clean sheet against Dundee United.
“I think the gaffer, being a defender himself, will sort it out. We’ve got every faith that he will put it right and every faith in each other that we’ll sort it out and come good. It’s not a huge worry at the moment but the amount of goals we’re losing is concerning.”
Brad McKay suffered for his part on Wednesday night by being substituted for 17-year-old Jordan McGhee and Locke must now decide whether to keep faith with the centre-back against United’s in-form forwards.
McGowan knows precisely what he will be up against this weekend. He is now a first-pick under Locke and has made the right-back slot his own this season, with Jamie Hamill operating in a midfield holding role.
“Going forward, I think Dundee United are one of the best teams in the league apart from Celtic,” he continued. “They’ve got Goodwillie, Mackay-Steven, [Stuart] Armstrong, [Ryan] Gauld. That’s a lot of attacking threat. We’ll need to be on our game to get anything out of the match.
“At Tynecastle, we’ve given everyone a game so far this season and we fear no-one at home so we’ll be looking to take all three points. Teams come to Tynecastle and expect a full house now and we expect it too. If we can give the crowd a lift, I’m sure they’ll give us a lift as well.”
After enduring extra-time and penalties against Queen of the South, there is little time to recover before United arrive in Gorgie. The threadbare nature of Hearts’ squad following administration has been well documented and the same faces will again be called upon tomorrow. Recent meetings between the two have strongly favoured the Tannadice club, who have lost only once in their last ten encounters with Hearts.
It is to Locke’s advantage, though, that the majority of his squad are young academy graduates who are in their teens or early 20s and in peak physical condition. “It’s more just mentally and physically tiring,” explained McGowan. “We’re all young enough and fresh enough to get through these games. There were a lot of young boys on the pitch on Wednesday night who ran through the game fine. That’s to our advantage, although it’s certainly not a tactic to be going to extra-time.
“Our fitness is one of the positive things. We have people who can run all day for the club and for the team. That helps if we’re in the situation we found ourselves on Wednesday, but we’ll try to avoid that if we can.
“We’ll be fresh and firing for tomorrow and that will teach a lot of the young boys in the team about playing midweek, going through extra-time and then being ready to start on a Saturday. It showed great bottle from the young boys to play in that atmosphere and a lot of them went up and hit penalties as well. Winning gave a lot of the boys in the team a huge confidence boost that we needed after losing three games on the bounce.”
McGowan himself volunteered for a penalty and stroked it confidently beyond the Queen of the South goalkeeper Calum Antell after Jamie Hamill’s kick went over the crossbar. “I’ve taken two penalties and scored two now, so I’m pleased with that. I pulled Hamill out of a hole,” laughed the defender.
“We are making it hard for ourselves in the League Cup. We did it last year as well. We took every game to penalties and got people sent off and everything. I think it’s just the Hearts way never to to things the easy way. It’s not the be all and end all. We lost at Ross County, which is a hard place to go, and we’re through to the next round of the League Cup so it’s not all doom and gloom.”