European football is most definitely Hearts’ aim for 2016, an ambition for which they are firmly on course.
Nonetheless, dropping points is irritating those within the Tynecastle camp after just one win in two months.
Hearts are nothing if not entertaining right now given their last three games have finished 2-2, 3-2 and 2-2. However, gnawing away at players, management and supporters is the feeling points are being surrendered too easily. Conceding a late equaliser from a set-play at Rugby Park added to the frustrations.
Josh Magennis’ header from Steven Smith’s corner levelled a very open match at 2-2 after Callum Paterson’s exquisite keepy-up and volley looked to have secured Hearts a winning start to 2016. Those goals followed Conrad Balatoni’s opener for Kilmarnock and Gavin Reilly’s instant leveller at the end of the first half.
Hearts players are concerned too many draws may undermine aspirations of qualifying for the Europa League. A third of their 21 league games to date have ended level and they believe most of those should have been converted into victories. It is worth remembering, as head coach Robbie Neilson often points out, that they are the Ladbrokes Premiership’s newly promoted club, but that doesn’t stifle the lofty ambition within the squad.
“We should be coming down here and taking three points,” complained Reilly on Saturday evening. “It’s not been a bad week because we’ve not been beaten. I thought we showed signs of quality at times and not so much at others. It’s a point gained so we’ll just get back on the road and hopefully win in the cup next week.
“When we went 2-1 up, we battered Kilmarnock for about ten minutes but we never got another goal and we were always a bit scared they might go and get one back. That’s what happened when the corner came in. They are a big, physical team and ended up scoring. I still thought we should have taken three points.”
The disappointment again underlined the rapid development of the Edinburgh club since they emerged from administration in June 2014. “One hundred per cent,” confirmed Reilly. “Hearts are a club that has just come up from the Premiership but we have to be aiming higher than that. I’m not saying we’ll go and win the league, but definitely to do well.
“Top six was the first aim and I think we have almost nailed that just now. We definitely have to be looking for a European place, whether that is fourth, third, or who knows? Hopefully, we could go on and possibly get second. We are third at the moment. We’ll look to build game by game and second is the aim at the moment.”
In that respect, they are now in a vital period. The proverbial business end of the season is nearing and those who prevail come April and May often do so because they thrived during January and February.
“It’s a big time for every team, with new players coming in and a hectic schedule,” continued Reilly. “In my opinion, leagues get decided in this period over January and February. It goes a long way to sorting out who is going to finish where. It’s an important time just now. We have this big [Scottish] cup game [against Aberdeen] which will be important for the club and exciting for the fans. But it will also be a big month in the league and hopefully we can get back to winning ways.”
Neilson bemoaned some erratic play from his side in Ayrshire. “I thought we played well in periods. The quality was there but the consistency of the quality was the problem,” he said. “When we showed some quality for a few minutes, we were totally on top of the game. Then two or three slack passes gave Kilmarnock momentum and we have to dig ourselves back out again.
“We have to do it every minute of every game. I’ll accept some stray passes here and there. On the whole, I felt there was some really good stuff on Saturday but then [there was] some other stuff that we got slack on. They maybe felt, ‘we’ve won the game, we can go on easy street’.
“We know Kilmarnock are are always going to be dangerous from set-plays. They’ve got Magennis and, with the left foot of Smith, they get good deliveries and put balls right on top of you. We had to deal with it but we didn’t deal with one of them and got punished for it. We should be coming to Kilmarnock and winning. We should have enough to win.
“We’re losing some slack goals at the moment. On Wednesday night, we lost a couple of slack goals, then another one on Saturday. If somebody whips a really good left-footed ball right on top of the box, it can be difficult to stop at times. If our opponents are getting five, six, seven, eight, nine free headers at goal from set-plays, then there’s a concentration issue. If it’s one from 15 or 20, it’s just one of those things you need to deal with.”
Hearts complained bitterly that Smith had fouled Juwon Oshaniwa before Magennis crossed for Balatoni to open the scoring at the second attempt. Reilly’s equaliser came just two minutes later as the striker pounced to covert a rebound after Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald pushed Billy King’s volley on to his left post.
MacDonald suffered more misfortune in the second half when he saved brilliantly from Prince Buaben at close range, only for the ball to fall to Paterson 20 yards out. His keepy-up and powerful volley put Hearts 2-1 ahead. Kilmarnock manager Gary Locke introduced Kris Boyd for the closing stages and was delighted to see his team force an equaliser as they try to fight their way out of the relegation play-off spot.
“There was a lot of resilience. We’ve got to show that every week,” said Locke. “Against the teams near the top of the league we’ve done well, it’s against the other teams that we’ve got to make sure we turn up. The fans showed they will get behind the team when they see them applying themselves. Even at 2-1 down, I always thought we’d create chances. We looked dangerous from set-pieces and I’m delighted we scored from one.”