The influence and threat carried by both Arnaud Djoum and Jamie Walker make them critical to Hearts’ Scottish Cup hopes at Easter Road on Wednesday.
Their attacking panache will be pivotal if the Tynecastle club are to eliminate Edinburgh rivals Hibs in a fifth-round replay and reach the quarter-finals.
Regardless whether the threadbare Gorgie playing surface is replaced this week, Djoum and Walker are indispensable to Hearts. Their contributions masked some of the disappointment from Saturday’s 1-1 Premiership draw at home to bottom club Inverness. Although not all.
Losing 1-0 at the interval, Hearts recovered in the second half and ought to have won this match. Djoum scored the equaliser and won the penalty from which Walker should have secured victory. The Inverness goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams produced a fine save low to his left to block the winger’s spot-kick and earn the Highlanders a point.
Walker’s introduction as an early second-half substitute had injected creativity and also brought out the best in Djoum. This was the midfielder’s first start since he returned from a joyous African Cup of Nations campaign with Cameroon. There is no doubt he will retain his place in Leith. There is equal certainty that Walker will start for what is now a colossal game in the context of Hearts’ season.
“Hibs will be a difficult game but we have to go there to win. For us, there is no other result,” said Greek midfielder, Alex Tziolis. “We know the opponents better because some players were new here in the first game. I hope everything will be okay on Wednesday and we can pass to the next round.
“Everybody is disappointed, it’s a result nobody wants. It wasn’t a good performance and not our best game. We have to be 100 per cent concentrated in every game but we have to live with this and continue. Wednesday is the next game.
“This game is finished, now we have to change our minds. Wednesday is close. I understand from the first day I came here what this derby means. The fans tell me this is the most important game of the year. When you win a derby, you are really happy. When you lose, you don’t want to talk about it. I can’t say we are favourites after this result.”
Tynecastle’s rutted pitch didn’t help ball players like Tziolis, Perry Kitchen or Choulay. The Hearts captain was restored to the starting line-up, Choulay made his first start and enjoyed a decent first half. It was Walker and Djoum who conjured up the key moments, impressively so given the conditions underfoot.
Tziolis believes playing at Easter Road can actually benefit Hearts due to a better playing surface. “It’s difficult to play on our pitch. We have good players and can play good football,” he admitted. “We didn’t do that in the last two games at home but it’s not easy. The pitch is really bad. It will be better on Wednesday and that helps us.
“We have to stop this excuse [about the pitch], we have to find a way to get the result and play better. The pitch will be like this so we have to live with it. In my experience, it’s difficult to change this. I think the summer will be the time to change it. You can’t change the philosophy of the team but maybe you can do this for one game. We have to do our best with this field. Maybe you have to go more direct.”
Ian Cathro, the Hearts head coach, was involved in discussions on the pitch after Saturday’s final whistle as the Tynecastle hierarchy debated whether to lay a new surface this week. Having watched his team draw with Hibs and Inverness on the existing pitch, he couldn’t hide his frustrations.
Most annoying would have been the free header given to Carl Tremarco to break the deadlock in the first half from Greg Tansey’s free-kick. Hearts also hit the crossbar in the first period through Bjorn Johnsen, and Esmael Goncalves volleyed against a post after the break.
“We dominated Saturday’s game and created chances to win a game and a half. We played well at times, the players did a lot of good things. We suffer the disappointment because this is a game we need to be winning,” said Cathro, candidly.
“Perhaps we can be more clinical with the chances we create, especially in and around the box. We suffered for failing to defend a set-piece. We have a strong group and players who have fought hard for opportunities. I don’t have issues with anybody’s work on Saturday.
“The players’ effort and quality helped us dominate the game. It wasn’t easy but we did it well. We should be talking about a good performance with a different feeling because these are games this football club needs to win. The pitch doesn’t make things easier and of course it’s a factor. We need to look at it collectively and see how things progress.
“Normally, Jamie would put the penalty away but we had other chances.”
Richie Foran, the Inverness manager, was justifiably glowing in his praise after a welcome point in Edinburgh. His team set up in a rigid 4-1-4-1 formation and battled for their lives with organisation, tenacity and an attacking threat. Indeed, Ross Draper’s header bounced off a post shortly after Hearts equalised just to emphasise how finely the game was balanced.
“That was the old Inverness, the fighting Inverness,” said Foran. “All season we’ve looked good going forward but we were lazy going back the park. What changed that is players, meetings, training, sticking together, letting them know they weren’t doing their job properly but keeping them positive. We battled and frustrated Hearts and it’s a fair result for me.
“Extra training pays off and they were ready coming back in. Louis Laing made his debut and looked as if he was here for years. He is a leader and he’s good on the ball. He reads it very well. All the lads were out on their feet at the end. Fon Williams was excellent in goal and the penalty save will do him no harm either.”
Foran also joked that Tremarco is in danger of costing him money if he keeps scoring. The Irishman has a bet on with Inverness’ first-team coach Scott Kellacher that the left-back will not reach ten goals this season. Saturday’s header was his seventh of the campaign.
“I told Carl the other day he wouldn’t score again this season,” laughed Foran. “I told him I didn’t want to see him in the opposition box. I told him: ‘You’re a defender, so defend.’ He’s shut me up again. I’m going to lose a few quid if he reaches ten goals.”