After their spectacular collapse against Inverness ten days ago, a rattled Hearts side must get back in the saddle at the home of their League Cup semi-final conquerors this weekend.
The harrowing end to their unlikely trophy dream – they squandered a 2-1 lead against nine men before losing on penalties – provides a serious test of resolve for Gary Locke and his young side ahead of Saturday’s trip to the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium.
The hope for all connected with Hearts is that, having had almost two weeks in which to flush the sense of deflation out their system, they will be able to build on an impressive run of league form in which they had collected seven points from three games prior to the semi-final.
“When you have such a disappointing result, you can’t wait until the next game to try and get it out of your system,” said Allan Preston, a former Hearts winger. “They’ll have had 13 days since the semi-final and they’ll be desperate to get out and get going again. They can’t influence what’s gone before so they need to look forward.”
Preston, who watches Hearts regularly in his role as a BBC pundit, is adamant the players still have plenty to play for even though they are out of both cups and 17 points adrift at the foot of the Premiership.
In developing a mini surge of momentum with a draw at St Johnstone followed by exhilarating back-to-back wins over Ross County and St Mirren last month, it was evident that Hearts fans still take plenty pride and satisfaction from seeing their team perform well, even if it is too late to save their season. With more than half the players out of contract at the end of this campaign, there is also the small matter of players’ futures at stake.
“The new owners [Foundation of Hearts] are out there, they’ll be at every game and it’s getting towards the time when decisions will be taken about who stays and who goes,” said Preston. “Even if some players are not going to be staying at Hearts, they also need to make sure they’re impressing potential suitors.
“Every single player has got to go out and perform in every single game. They don’t know who is watching in the stand, whether it be a scout or a manager from another team or someone from the Foundation of Hearts. When you pull on that jersey and go out there, you’ve got a professional pride to try and win every game you play in. If that’s not built into you, you shouldn’t be playing professional football.
“There’s also an onus on the players to keep performing simply for the fans who have turned up week in, week out and kept the club alive. The fans have watched them get beat week after week after week, but they still turn up in incredible numbers, particularly at Tynecastle. I think it’s probably too late for them to stay in the league but they need to get as many points as they can now. They’ve got to try and keep the fans interested for the rest of the season. Even if they were to finish within 15 points of a team at the end of the season, that would be nice for them because it would mean they weren’t the worst team in the league.”
Despite the lingering sense of what might have been after a botched stoppage-time corner by Ryan Stevenson allowed Inverness back into the semi-final, Preston insists a sense of perspective needs to be maintained by all at Tynecastle.
“Yes, it’s very disappointing, but you need to remember Hearts were 30 seconds away from reaching a cup final, which would have been incredible with that squad,” he said. “It’s very disappointing that they couldn’t see it through but it’s all part of their learning curve. A lot of them will learn from that day and one or two might not. It’s difficult for them but they should all certainly have learnt that if you’re leading and you win a corner in the last minute, you keep the ball in the corner and see the game out, rather than giving it away.”
Away from the pressure-cooker of Tynecastle, Preston feels Hearts are getting back on the horse at the best possible venue. While he acknowledges that Inverness will provide a formidable test on their own patch, he hopes that a return to the Highlands can help spark the type of performance which brought a rousing 2-1 win away to County last month and took them through the zero-point barrier. “First and foremost, they need to put on a performance for the fans who travel up,” said Preston. “Inverness is always a good trip for the fans; a lot of them go up and stay over on the Friday or Saturday night. There’ll be a few there so there’s an onus on the team to perform. Last time they were in the Highlands they beat Ross County, so hopefully that’s a decent omen. They got into positive points that day, so it might be nice for them to go back up to the Highlands to try and get back on track.
“Inverness will be buoyant after getting to the final, though, and they’re still in the Scottish Cup.
“They’re also getting arguably their best and most influential player back in Richie Foran, so it’ll be a really tough game for Hearts.”