Gary Locke has challenged Hearts to prove they’re not the worst team in the Premiership by finishing the season within 15 points of at least one of their rivals.
The Tynecastle side, who were consigned to relegation earlier this month, languish a whopping 17 points adrift of second-bottom Partick Thistle with five bottom-six matches remaining. However, if their 15-point penalty were, hypothetically, to be removed, they would be only two points away from the Jags and within six points of seventh-place Hibs.
Locke is eager to ensure that his improving young side are ultimately relegated by virtue of the crippling deduction imposed for entering administration last summer rather than their own shortcomings.
“It would be nice if we could get within 15 points of at least one team because then we can say it was the deduction that relegated us and that we weren’t necessarily the worst team in the league,” said the manager. “It would be good for our pride and would be an achievement in itself considering everything we’ve had to deal with this season.”
While five of the bottom-six sides are driven by the threat of ending up in the relegation play-off place, Hearts have no such pressure to contend with, having had their relegation confirmed despite winning 4-2 at Partick in their last match a week past Saturday. Locke, however, is adamant that his team won’t be downing tools and is confident that they will be as focused and fired up as any of their opponents as they bid to sustain the improvement in form which has been evident since the turn of the year.
“I’m not too worried about them slackening off because they’re all still trying to prove themselves,” he said of his players. “In fact, we’re all still trying to prove ourselves. There’s certainly no chance of us letting them slacken off. We won’t tolerate that because we need to make sure we try and finish the season on a high. We’ve got five games left and we want to win the five of them. If we can carry on our current form then I’m hopeful we can pick up a few points and give our fans a really good end to the season.
“People will say we’ve got nothing to play for but I don’t look at it like that. We’ve got five massive games left. We feel we’re improving as a team and we want to make sure we keep improving for the rest of the season. We owe it to the fans as well. They’ve been unbelievable and backed us through thick and thin all season. The one thing that’s guaranteed is that they will turn out in huge numbers to support us, so we need to make sure we perform for them.”
In the early days of the season, the other Premiership strugglers were able to benefit psychologically from the knowledge that, no matter how badly they fared, Hearts, with their hefty points penalty, would always be well beneath them. By contrast, the young Jambos were inhibited by the pressure of playing must-win matches at such an early stage of their development as they battled to try and give themselves a fighting chance of staying in the league.
Now the tables have turned and it is the unburdened Gorgie side who are able to play with a sense of freedom, while Partick, St Mirren, Ross County, Kilmarnock and Hibs fret over the dreaded prospect of a relegation play-off.
“With the points deduction and the signing embargo and starting with such a young team, it was always a big ask to get the points to try and stay up and there was a lot of pressure surrounding that,” explained Locke. “But now the pressure’s on the teams above us as none of them want to finish second bottom. They’ll possibly be a bit more nervous than we are going into games but they’ll all have something to play for so it’s important that we match them in terms of effort. Apart from Kilmarnock, we’ve already beaten every other team in the bottom six so we’ve got nothing to fear.”
While there was an air of despondency around Tynecastle as Locke’s young side struggled particularly badly between September and December, the manager believes that Hearts can be proud of the fact that, over the course of the season, they have held their own in a league where every other rival has been able to call on a bigger squad with more proven professional footballers. “There’s been a lot of doom and gloom said and written about Hearts this season but you look at the table and, without the 15-point deduction, we’d only be six points worse off than Hibs, who are up in seventh place,” he said. “A lot of people would have expected us to be on the end of a few hammerings this season, but it’s only really happened the once in the [7-0] Scottish Cup game against Celtic. That was a horrible experience but we’ve learnt from it and, touch wood, it’s never happened again.
“Yes, there have been a few mistakes along the way and there have been three or four performances we’ve not been happy with, but, over the course of the season, I couldn’t have asked for much more from the players. We’ve competed well in the majority of games. We’ve added a bit extra awareness and strength in the past few months and that’s credit to the players because they’ve worked tirelessly to make themselves better.”
The notable progress made by the whole team under his charge has been the most heartening aspect of this season for the manager. “First and foremost, we’ve tried to improve all the players,” Locke added. “It was never going to be easy because a lot of them had never played first-team football in their lives before but we’ve definitely grown as a team. If you look at the season as a whole, there’s been a massive improvement, especially in the younger players. They’re stronger, they’re more physical and they’re able to compete properly now, which they weren’t really able to do back at the start of the season when their bodies weren’t ready for it.
“Dave Sykes [the sports scientist] has worked tirelessly with them all season and the work we’ve done with them on the training pitch has certainly helped as well. I think we’re now seeing the benefits of all the work that goes on behind the scenes. It’s come a little bit too late to keep us in the league but I think all the fans can see that there’s been a real improvement.
“There was a worry about some of them maybe suffering burnout not so long ago, but some of them have got a bit of a second wind and others, like Ryan Stevenson, Jamie Walker, Jason Holt and David Smith, have had a break simply because they’ve been out injured. Sam Nicholson and Dale Carrick getting fitter and stronger has helped us as well. The players have all got better and gained a lot of confidence, which has also helped.”