The prospects of Hearts avoiding relegation hinge on reducing the gap at the bottom of the Scottish Premiership to single figures before the league splits in April.
That is the opinion of goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, who today stressed no-one in the Riccarton dressing-room has abandoned hope of survival.
There is a gap of 19 points at present between themselves and second-bottom Partick Thistle. And, after drawing with St Johnstone and beating Ross County in their last two matches, they aim to continue this mini revival tonight when another bottom-six team, St Mirren, visit Tynecastle.
Hearts finally erased the last of their 15-point penalty for entering administration with Saturday’s 2-1 win in Dingwall. With nine games remaining until the Premiership splits in two, MacDonald believes the Jam Tarts need to force the gap down to at least nine points to have any chance of staying in the top flight.
“Ideally, I think that’s what we would have to do to give ourselves a chance,” he said today. “Even if we’re nine points behind somebody going into the split, then technically we’re still in with a chance with five games left. All it needs is for us to win four of that last five and for somebody else to struggle and you’re there.
“We’ve got four points out of the last six and hopefully we can add another three tonight. Our last three performances have been good and we’ve matched a lot of teams this season. We’ve been on the wrong end of results so maybe it’s time for the luck to turn a little bit.
“We’re still a fair bit behind but if we can get a result tonight and get on a run of three or four wins, and the teams above us don’t, then the pressure falls back on them a little bit. They start thinking, ‘wait a minute here’.”
After a winter of discontent, with only two league points garnered from a run of nine games between mid-November and mid-January, Hearts’ youngsters look a far more confident group of late. Manager Gary Locke told the Evening News earlier this week that his players are now playing with the pressure off as most people feel they have no chance of avoiding relegation. MacDonald agreed with those sentiments but insisted none of his colleagues are giving up hope.
“It was a great performance and a great result up at Ross County at the weekend,” he said. “We haven’t had a result in a while so it was nice to get that but I thought the performance was different class, especially in the first half. We played great football and created so many chances in the game.
“You could see over the last few weeks that our performances have been improving. Even going back to the Motherwell game, although we lost 1-0, I thought we played much better and were unfortunate not to take anything. At St Johnstone, we’ve come back from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 and then we won at Ross County. The boys have grown in confidence these last few weeks. I think they’re enjoying the games a bit more now. The pressure is maybe off a little bit because we’re so far behind and everybody’s kind of said, ‘let’s go and enjoy things’. It looks like that in our performances.”
After winning in the Highlands, tonight’s encounter takes on slightly more significance. It was originally rearranged hastily to ensure Ryan Stevenson could serve the second of a two-match ban, thus freeing him for Sunday’s League Cup semi-final with Inverness. However, MacDonald for one is grateful to have a midweek fixture given the rising confidence levels amongst his team-mates.
“Tonight’s game was originally arranged to get Stevo available for Sunday, but it’s probably a good thing to get a game so quickly. There is a confidence and buoyancy about the boys again after the last couple of results, so it’s a good time to have a game.”
It also offers the chance to erase memories of St Mirren’s last trip to Gorgie, a 2-0 defeat in early October which still rankles at Tynecastle. Hearts had the opportunity to close to within five points of the Paisley club after a storming start to the league campaign but seemed to wither under pressure on the day.
“That was one of the games when we were really poor. St Mirren dominated us that day,” admitted MacDonald. “If we’d won we’d have been only five points behind them at that stage and I think the pressure got to the boys. There was huge expectation around us because we’d had a good start to the season. It was maybe just a bit early for some of the younger boys to handle.
“They’ve all played plenty games in the first-team now so they will definitely have learned from it. Over the last few weeks, I think you can see everybody is going out just to try and enjoy the game. There is also a big incentive to be in the team for this weekend because we have a cup-semi final to play.
“The league form is obviously your bread and butter and we want to survive in the league, but there’s nothing better than a cup run. Cup semi-finals and potentially looking forward to a final are part of the reason you become a football player.”