THE scene of a silent and devastated dressing-room remains vivid in Jamie Hamill’s mind. Management and players with heads in their hands illustrated the shock wrought by a few freak minutes beforehand.
It was the aftermath of the last meeting between Hearts and Ross County, where two goals in the dying seconds transformed a 1-0 win for the visitors into a 2-1 defeat in Dingwall.
The result was Hearts’ third successive loss as a dispiriting run gained momentum, eventually ending with just one league point taken from 24 before the 3-1 win at Pittodrie two weeks ago. The lessons learned have been harsh for Gary Locke and his inexperienced squad. They remain 13 points adrift at the bottom of the league despite clawing the deficit back to nine earlier in the season before losing their way.
It’s fair to say the frustration felt in the Highlands that day back in September has not dissipated much. “A defeat like that still is a wee bit raw in the system. To a certain extent, revenge does come into it,” said Hamill ahead of tomorrow’s visit of County to Tynecastle. “When we came into the dressing-room up there, the gaffer and Billy Brown were just as bad as every player. We all had our hands in our heads just thinking, ‘what actually just happened there?’
“These are games which are good for the young boys because they can learn from the mistakes we made and do better next time there’s five minutes to go. We need to hold on to games, even if that means kicking the ball out the stadium or wee simple things like that. We’re out to do a job and get three points tomorrow, it doesn’t matter who it’s against or how we do it.”
What irked Locke and Brown all the more about the goals conceded to Richard Brittain and Melvin de Leeuw at Victoria Park was the lack of concentration from their players as County chased the game. “From the start of the season, staying switched on has been emphasised to us so many times,” explained Hamill. “That’s the disappointing thing, people not switching on at certain times of the game. It’s especially important to be switched on during the last few minutes. A draw up at Ross County wouldn’t have been a bad result at the end of the day.
“The gaffer has drummed it into us from day one to stop crosses coming into the box and, if they do come in, make sure we defend them with our lives. If you switch off in the Premiership, it’s a goal, basically.”
For Hamill and other senior colleagues like Jamie MacDonald, Ryan Stevenson and captain Danny Wilson, lifting spirits in the wake of that Ross County loss took a while. “After a defeat like that, it’s kind of difficult to try and pick people up,” continued the versatile midfielder. “The young boys aren’t used to that kind of situation, but we aren’t really a young team any more. These guys have played a fair number of matches now.
“We’ve managed to get things going again and now this game is vital for us tomorrow. The young ones are resilient and you see that in games. I don’t think there have been many games this season where a team has wiped the floor with us despite us being inexperienced. The Aberdeen result was great, but we need to put that to bed now. Playing against Wolfsburg in the friendly was good experience for the whole team. We’re bouncing in to the Ross County game with high expectations.”
The points deficit slipped back to 15 before the morale-boosting win over Aberdeen. Hamill is under no illusions that the odds of surviving relegation this season remain firmly against Hearts. “It’s a difficult situation to be in. The only ones who can get us out of it is myself and the boys in the dressing room.
“It’s a challenge I was really looking forward to or I wouldn’t have been here at the start of the season. It’s important for the fans to stay behind the boys.
“Results against Hibs [in the League Cup] and Aberdeen have given us some confidence. If we can stay up at the end of the season, I think it will be the biggest achievement in the club’s history. That’s taking into account the squad we have and the fact the gaffer is restricted in who he can bring in as well.
“It is important to get a run going, though. We’re on our toes after the win against Aberdeen, so hopefully we can build on that now. You see teams, throughout the season, going on little runs of three, four or five games. We want that to be us so we can try to claw points back. The gaffer had us training really hard at the start of the week, although we’ve mellowed down a bit. The mood in the camp has been good.”
As if to emphasise that very last point about spirits lifting, Hamill described the buoyant mindset of Ryan Stevenson over the last three weeks following his goals against Hibs and Aberdeen.
“He’s not been off YouTube in the car on the way to training. It’s been every day,” laughed Hamill. “It’s good to have Stevo back fit. He had another wee scare with his knee injury, but I think he just tore his tights. He is a massive player for us and hopefully he can keep adding his name to the scoresheet.
“He hasn’t put pictures of his goal at Aberdeen up in the dressing-room. I don’t allow that to happen, although if he got his way he probably would.”