WEAR and tear is setting in amongst the Hearts squad but, with a league title looming, no-one wants to relinquish their place in the team.
The so-called “business end” of the season is here and Robbie Neilson’s players are fully prepared to go through the pain barrier to stay involved. Left-back Adam Eckersley is a prime example.
The Englishman admits to suffering little niggles after almost three quarters of a gruelling campaign but sheer desire and appetite are forcing him on. The kind of appetite which pushed him forward for the umpteenth time against Queen of the South on Saturday to deliver a cross for the winning goal six minutes from the end. A goal Eckersley believes might ultimately bring the Championship title to Tynecastle.
Perhaps the phrase “no pain, no gain” has never been more appropriate. Hearts sit 20 points clear at the top of the table and are ticking off each game in their countdown to promotion. Some players feel fatigued, others are nursing slight injuries, but nobody is willing to give in until the league is theirs.
“Every week now, a few people are picking up niggles, including myself, and the squad’s a bit thin on the ground as regards certain positions,” said Eckersley. “However, we keep going and we keep getting points. That’s what matters. I took an elbow to the ribs a couple of weeks ago and it was very difficult for me to be sitting at home when we were playing Livingston away. As a footballer, you don’t want to miss any games. I want to be out there every week because this is my job and I’m really enjoying it at the moment.
“It’s massive being 20 points ahead, especially when you go to places like Queen of the South on an artificial pitch and win 2-1. These are the places where it’s hard to pick up points but we haven’t fallen into that trap. We came away with a great result at the end of the day – one that may decide the league.”
Rather than ribs, groins or hamstrings, Eckersley’s ears are probably bothering him most just now. The noise brought by the winning goal in Dumfries left his eardrums ringing. Thousands of travelling Hearts fans erupted in a cacophony of celebration as Genero Zeefuik’s rather tame shot deflected off Chris Higgins and bounced over the line. Eckersley, having delivered the telling cross almost from the corner flag, found himself between Hearts supporters in the east stand and Terregles Street terracing as the ball hit the net.
“It was great to score at that end,” he admitted. “They’re passionate fans and when the ball hit the net it was a big uproar. That gives you a lift and a buzz. I don’t think you can substitute events and moments like that in your career. It’s only a small part of what we’re trying to achieve this season, which is promotion. It’s one more little step towards that goal but it was a fantastic feeling. It’s always great to get an assist.
“Getting forward is a big part of my game. I don’t know how many balls I put in the box on Saturday. You keep making those runs and you know one of the crosses is going to land where you want it to and we’re going to finish it. I took a run and Danny played a ball down the side for me. I took a touch and saw Genero at the front post. I just tried to put it into an area for him. I think it took a lucky deflection and went in at the near post. If you keep making those runs and crosses, you’re bound to get one at one point.
“It’s always nice to get three points. I thought we played well in the second half and controlled the game. Obviously we were a little bit disappointed to concede a goal. It was a bit of a scrappy goal, bit of a half-tackle by me and the ball fell to their man, who took it down the line and crossed it for the goal. That’s football I suppose but it was great character from our team to show we aren’t beaten at 1-0. We carry on going and I think that’s the sign of champions.
“That’s the time when you have to keep going, when it’s difficult. Especially for me, as a senior player, you have to keep working hard to show everybody else that we’re not done, we’re not defeated. That’s what the older ones do in this squad.”
Eckersley’s influence in the Riccarton dressing-room is well-earned. His performances since joining Hearts last August have been both consistent and of a high standard. He does not turn 30 until September but carries a wealth of experience and an inner drive which can inspire younger members of the squad.
The calm assurance he exudes becomes evident when he is asked about signing a new contract. His current one ends this summer. “I think you know more than me,” he smiled. “I was on Twitter the other day and I’m getting messages saying Adam should stay. I believe there was something in the Evening News saying they [Hearts] are waiting to find out what budgets are for next year.
“I’m just enjoying my football right now and whatever happens will happen. I’m not going to start banging down the office door. I’ll keep enjoying things, I’m very happy here, my family are happy, so we’ll see what happens.”
Neilson has intimated his wish to keep Eckersley provided finances allow it. “That does encourage you but I don’t need much encouragement to be honest with you. I put my boots on and I go out to give 110 per cent every time I play. Doesn’t matter who it’s for. Whichever team I’m playing for, whichever colours I’m wearing, that’s who I want to do well for. Hopefully I can continue to do that in Hearts colours.”