SIX away wins in 38 league games over the past two seasons gives significant credence to the notion that Hearts are not at their most comfortable on the road these days. Their limp display in losing to St Johnstone in Perth on Sunday did little to suggest that this extra-young Tynecastle side is going to be any better suited to away games than their recent predecessors.
It stands to reason, then, that, if they are to have any chance of overcoming their 15-point penalty and staying in the Scottish Premiership, Gary Locke’s hamstrung side will need to pick up a hefty proportion of points at Tynecastle. It would be stretching a point to suggest that the Gorgie ground has been anything like a fortress in recent seasons – there have been too many defeats to entertain such talk – but 20 wins from 38 league games at Tynecastle would imply that Hearts are a far happier animal in the confines of their compact, atmospheric Gorgie home.
If Hearts were to somehow pick up nine home wins – a feat they have managed in each of the last five seasons – it would be reasonable to assume that they would give themselves a good chance of finishing ahead of at least one rival, even with the 15-point penalty.
Of course, winning half of their home fixtures will be easier said than done for Locke’s youthful and significantly-weakened squad. However, Tynecastle, at its raucous best, can have an invigorating effect on players wearing maroon.
“I was at Sunderland for a long time and the passion the fans showed there made me look forward to playing home games. I had exactly the same feeling at Hearts,” recalls Kevin Kyle, shown right, the big striker who shone in Gorgie under Jim Jefferies in the 2010/11 season.
“I used to get really excited leading up to match-day. Nothing could beat driving through to Tynecastle on a match-day with the family, preparing for the game as the crowd started to arrive. When they get behind you, and when you score a goal there, it’s a great stadium to play in. It’s one of the best stadiums I played in. Just a brilliant atmosphere.
“The biggest thing about Tynecastle is the design of it. Even if it’s a full house of 16,000 or whatever, it still looks like it’s more because the stands are so steep and the crowd is right on top of you. As a home player, it’s an advantage to you, whereas if you’re an away player, it’s quite intimidating.
“When Tynecastle’s close to a full house and the fans are on song, it can really be a fortress, especially in the situation Hearts find themselves in this season. Hopefully the fans get right behind the boys this season and they can pull off the impossible. It would be an absolutely superb season if that was to happen.”
Outwith Celtic, Hearts, all the more so this season, are the only club in Scotland’s top flight who still have a realistic chance of filling their stadium and creating a genuinely intimidating atmosphere.
Having starred at a full-house Tynecastle as recently as last season, Ryan McGowan knows all too well what difference a fired-up Jambos support can make.
“As players, the Tynecastle crowd can give you a massive lift,” said McGowan, shown above, the Hearts fans’ favourite who left for China in January. “If you start getting on top of teams or have a good passage of play, the crowd really picks up and gets behind you. A lot of the times I played, the crowd definitely helped influence games in our favour, particularly if a game was tight going into the last ten minutes. There’s always a good atmosphere in the Celtic games and the derbies, but last year’s against Liverpool was probably the best. I think even the Liverpool players were taken aback by the atmosphere that night.
“There was also the St Mirren game in November after we hit a bit of trouble off the pitch, where we sold the ground out. That game sticks out as being the first one where everybody stuck together in adversity. To sell out for a run-of-the-mill game against St Mirren was incredible. If there were only 10,000 people there that day, the way we were playing at that stage, that game could easily have gone against us.
“The crowd definitely helped get us three points and that’s the type of support Hearts are going to need in every game this season.”
As well as creating a din for games like this Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, there will now be extra onus on the Hearts fans to rabble-rouse for the visit of the league’s lesser lights. “There’s a real feelgood factor about the place at the moment, which is amazing considering the situation at the club, and I’m sure Tynecastle will be bouncing for the next few weeks,” said McGowan. “But the important thing is that the fans stick with the team for the next nine months and not just for the opening few games of the season.
“Their support will be just as important in January or February, when results maybe aren’t going well, as it is now. Sometimes when you’re playing St Mirren or Dundee or teams like that, there would be some moans and groans if it was still 0-0 at half-time and we hadn’t played as well as we can. You can understand that because fans pay good money to come along, but now, because of the situation, everyone needs to be realistic.
“If they’re struggling at home to, say, St Mirren or Partick, the crowd will really have to stick with the players and try and help them over the line because these are the games they will have to try and win if they’re to stay up. It’s easy for fans to get up for the big games like the one against Liverpool, but they’re going to have to treat every game like a Liverpool game now. The 15-point deduction does sound a lot but five wins at home and that’s you back to square one. Even against the lesser SPL teams, the fans will have to try and create the best atmosphere that they can and if they do that, it will make a huge difference.”
Equally as important as a rousing atmosphere will be tolerance and patience from the stands. This is one season when Hearts can ill-afford fans to start booing and barracking players, or streaming out early when their young team find the going tough.
“The most important thing the players will need is understanding from the fans,” said McGowan. “You can give as much passion as you can from the stands but sometimes it can go the other way when players are not doing as well as they can on the pitch. No-one wants that, especially this season when the players are so young. A couple of years ago, some of these boys might not have been in the first team, but they’re now in a position where they’ll be expected to go out and perform week in, week out. The fans will have to understand that some weeks these boys will play well and other weeks they won’t do so well. Some fans maybe think what they shout doesn’t make any difference, but if they shout something negative it can affect players and, equally, if they get behind the players, it really can give you a massive lift.”
The man charged with helping set the tone at Tynecastle on a match-day has no doubt that the fans will stand up and be counted this season. “The fans are obviously going to have a massive part to play,” said Scott Wilson, Hearts’ resident public address man. “What we are lacking in terms of quality on the park, hopefully we can counter-balance with enthusiasm from the stands. It’s an old cliche, but this is one season where talk of the fans being like a 12th man really holds true.
“The home fans are always really supportive anyway, but the team needs the support more than ever this season. I think we realise we’re all in this together and it’s only us that can help bring us out of it.
“After what we’ve all been through over the past two months, there’s an extra bit of engagement between the entire fanbase because of how everyone has rallied to help secure the short-term future of the club. After all that’s happened in the last few months, the fans now have the chance to do what they do best – and that’s support Heart of Midlothian.”
With a derby match to kick off Hearts’ home campaign on Sunday, Wilson expects Tynecastle to roar like never before – and he believes the players will respond accordingly. “I think this will be the liveliest derby off the park for a long, long time. If the Hearts players can’t rouse themselves for a derby, they’re probably playing for the wrong club.”