Arithmetic states Hearts’ first chance to secure the Scottish Championship would be at Ibrox on the first weekend in April. Adam Eckersley has no intention of waiting that long.
The left-back believes the league can be won before the month is out after Saturday’s record-breaking 10-0 win over Cowdenbeath.
For supporters, the prospect of celebrating automatic promotion in Glasgow is rather mouth-watering. Eckersley, whilst understanding the sentiment, isn’t having it. He explained today that the motivation within the Tynecastle dressing room is to win the title in March and face Rangers as champions.
As things stand, Hearts are 20 points ahead of second-placed Hibs and 24 clear of third-placed Rangers, who have three games in hand. Assuming both Hearts and Rangers take full points between now and then, a league showdown between both clubs would take place at Ibrox on Sunday, April 5. One slip by the turmoil-ridden Glasgow club before then and their Edinburgh rivals could take full advantage. That becomes all the more possible when you consider Rangers have won only six of their last 15 matches in all competitions.
Eckersley, below, arrived in Edinburgh last August with a mission to win the Championship. With the trophy now in sight, he wants Hearts to continue the ruthlessness which annihilated Cowdenbeath and secure the title quickly.
“I would like to get this wrapped up before we go to Ibrox. If we keep winning our games, who knows what can happen,” said the Englishman, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “Rangers might slip, Hibs might slip, we just have to keep focusing on ourselves and keep winning matches. Hopefully we can have the title wrapped up before April.
“That’s definitely the motivation. I think you can see that. The players are hungry to get this in the bag. We’ve been at the top of the league for a long time, playing with a lot of pressure. Maybe our performances haven’t always been up to scratch but I think there’s a bit of a new lease of life in us. Especially after that result on Saturday. It’s just a kick up the a**e really to say: ‘There’s the finishing line. We can see it. Let’s keep grinding out results.’ The rewards will come at the end of it all.
“It would be good achievement for me to come in and get this title sown up. I’d be happy with that.”
The 29-year-old was part of a team which recorded the biggest league win in Hearts’ history at the weekend. Cowdenbeath played the majority of the game with ten men after Lewis Toshney’s red card and were ripped asunder by the relentless home team.
Asked how he felt being involved in setting a new record, Eckersley again reiterated his primary focus right now. “I’m proud and I’m happy but there are bigger things at stake this season,” he said. “I just want to get to the title as quickly as possible now. If you’re producing results like a 10-0 win along the way, I think they’re just bonuses.
“That was a first in my career on Saturday. At 5-0 up at half-time, you’re sat in the dressing room knowing the game is over. You just need to keep doing what you’re doing, playing football, but then another five goals came in the second half. It was a very strange but fantastic day.”
Whilst Eckersley, and his colleagues refuelled in the home dressing room at the interval, most of the 15,000 crowd inside Tynecastle expected the second half to be a rather tame affair with the result already beyond doubt.
“Well the manager didn’t see it that way, he piled on three strikers as subs. It was obviously his intent that he wanted to get more goals.” Osman Sow, Soufian El Hassnaoui and James Keatings were introduced by Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, to add fresh impetus. Sow scored twice as the visitors capitulated further in the rain. “I kind of felt a bit bad for Cowdenbeath. They worked hard but when you’re playing against Hearts and we’re at our best, that’s what we can do to teams,” said Eckersley.
“The three quick goals in the first half [from Dutch forward Genero Zeefuik] took the wind out of their sails, to be honest. You can’t fault them, they still tried to dig in and salvage something out of the game. Everything we touched just turned to gold. Everything we hit, apart from a couple of shots, landed in the back of the net. Sometimes you get those days and on other days you can’t put it in the back of the net. You take it when it comes.”
Those with any slim aspirations of catching Hearts in the league would have exhaled a sigh of despondency upon hearing the score from Tynecastle on Saturday evening. Hibs won 1-0 at Alloa after Rangers drew 1-1 at Falkirk the previous night. The Tynecastle club’s momentum and sheer refusal to let up is exactly the kind of message they want to convey to others.
“When you’re beating teams 10-0 at home, it’s a big, big statement,” continued Eckersley. “Our team is full of confidence now. We came off the back of a good win at Queen of the South on the astroturf, which was a massive victory. Everyone was buzzing all week and then we’ve got another great result against Cowdenbeath.”
Since losing 3-2 at home to Falkirk on January 24, Hearts have won all five subsequent matches to sit on the cusp of finalising their promotion back to the Scottish Premiership.
“It’s very difficult to go all season unbeaten. It just shows the character and the strength of the squad that we aren’t down for long,” Eckersley pointed out. “The next day you can be upset but you’ve got to get everyone back up and ready again for the next game coming. That’s what this squad is very good at.
“We got beat, we get back on the horse and go again. We won the week after against Alloa and we’ve gone from there. We’ve got a lot of strength in the team, mentally as much as anything.”
A large part of that is down to the influence and decision-making of Neilson, his assistants Stevie Crawford and Jack Ross, plus director of football Craig Levein. Their strategic planning and recruitment have assembled a squad which is the envy of many top-flight clubs, let alone those in Scotland’s Championship.
Each game is analysed and broken down, and preparation for the next fixture is relentlessly thorough. Eckersley, a former England youth internationalist who played under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, has noted Neilson’s attention to detail.
“I’ve been impressed with Robbie since I got here. He works hard in training and he works very hard tactically when we’re not even in the building. He studies the other teams a lot.
“Come a Tuesday each week, he knows exactly what to do to break down the team we’re playing on the Saturday. The lads are very good at taking instructions and following them.”
For the moment, the only instruction is to win the league title. Sooner rather than later.