Once the bulging veins settled back into his forehead, interim head coach Jon Daly could sit back and reflect on some relative positivity in Hearts’ performance at Parkhead on the Premiership’s opening day.
His blast at the Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers brought the Irishman’s blood to the boil but there were aspects of Saturday’s game to temper his anger.
Hearts’ battle this season isn’t with Celtic. They aren’t trying to compare with a team in a different stratosphere, unbeaten domestically since May 2016 and aiming for the Champions League group stage. Instead, they will try to match Aberdeen and Rangers by challenging for the Ladbrokes Premiership’s European places.
Despite sacking manager Ian Cathro after eight wins in 30 games last week, starting the campaign with a run of away games, and not playing at Tynecastle until November at the earliest, the Edinburgh club have some cause for optimism. On Saturday they were organised, structured and disciplined under Daly and his fellow coaches Austin MacPhee and Liam Fox. What they missed was the quality of Leigh Griffiths, James Forrest and Callum McGregor and others in hooped jerseys.
A 4-1-4-1 formation contained Celtic fairly well in the first half. Teenagers Lewis Moore and Jamie Brandon handled the occasion well in front of almost 59,000 people and Esmael Goncalves’ late consolation goal was that of a striker trying to prove a point after being left out of Hearts’ starting line-up.
They didn’t keep the ball well enough and their slack distribution played into Celtic’s hands. The hosts passed the ball patiently but at a high tempo, waiting for openings to emerge.
Ultimately, they finished deserved winners and might have scored more than four. In McGregor, they have Scotland’s most dynamic midfielder who is surely overdue a Scotland call-up. Griffiths remains a scourge of Hearts after scoring twice, with McGregor and Scott Sinclair getting the other goals before substitute Goncalves reduced the deficit in the dying minutes.
“I thought the structure of the team was quite good. The first goal was an error because we probably should have let Leigh Griffiths run offside. We got punished for a couple of mistakes,” admitted Daly. “I’ve played at Celtic Park and you need a day when they miss chances and you take them. We made a couple of mistakes that cost us goals at key points.
“I don’t see this team being judged on a result at Celtic Park. I said to the players not to be too disheartened. The fans stayed behind and clapped them off after losing 4-1, which shows they were happy with the effort. The boys never stopped going. We got a goal back at 4-0 down and that doesn’t happen at Celtic Park. Normally it goes to 5-0 or 6-0.
“The lads dug in and kept fighting. They stayed true to the shape. We put two strikers on to have a go and try to get something back, which we did.”
Rodgers’ had spoken out in the morning press about Hearts’ management structure and questioned whether the seven players they have signed this summer were brought in by Ian Cathro, who lost his job last Tuesday. Daly took exception to the Celtic manager’s input, labelling it “absolutely disgusting”, “disgraceful” and “disrespectful”.
Rodgers was careful not to become embroiled in a public argument. “I hope Jon gets the job. I said what I had to say about my feeling on a fellow manager losing his job. There’s no drama. I said when I came up here I’d always be open and say what I think,” he remarked.
“In respect to Jon, I thought he set his team up very well. There was good organisation and we had to really work to get the result. I thought Hearts set up very well at the beginning of the game. They played 4-5-1 and kept it tight and compact. We had to work the ball and try to find spaces. We were disappointed to be only one up at half-time. In the second half, they began to tire a wee bit and we got in between them more. We scored four and maybe we could have had more.”
Christophe Berra, the Hearts captain, pointed to the fact that he and his colleagues had been drilled by Cathro all summer to play 3-4-3. Daly changed the shape to revert to a back four and make his team more resilient, which worked for the first 45 minutes at least. The opening goal from Griffiths, after he survived a Jack Hamilton challenge running through on goal, was all that separated the teams at the break.
An early goal after the restart killed the contest as Aaron Hughes failed to defend Griffiths’ corner. The ball broke for Sinclair to convert at the back post. Griffiths then headed home McGregor’s cross and the young Scot lashed the fourth high beyond Hamilton from 18 yards. Ruthless Celtic certainly punished their opponents whenever they made an error.
“We’ve been working all pre-season on a different formation so to come to Parkhead on the first day against the champions was a difficult task,” said Berra. “In the first half we were pleased with what we did. We wanted to start the second half well but a very cheap goal at the start of the second half kind of kills the game.
“As the game got stretched, their good players got more involved. We’re disappointed with the result but we had a gameplan. There are things we need to work on but we aren’t going to be judged on Celtic. We’ve got to beat the other teams below Celtic.”
In that respect, this weekend’s trip to Kilmarnock now assumes huge importance if Hearts are to build any momentum for an incoming manager. Which is why striker Kyle Lafferty was substituted during Saturday’s second half. Already on a booking after several fouls and arguments with referee Kevin Clancy, he was removed to avoid a red card and subsequent suspension.
Daly is in charge of Hearts for the foreseeable future whilst director of football Craig Levein and owner Ann Budge seek a more experienced head coach to succeed Cathro.
Sseveral candidates have put themselves forward for the role in recent days. Saturday showed them there is material to work with and that Hearts could be moulded into a team worthy of the name.