Hearts will have rivals looking over shoulders

Gary Locke got the better of Pat Fenlon on Sunday
Gary Locke got the better of Pat Fenlon on Sunday
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Let’s get one thing straight: just because Hearts have the least-proven squad in the Scottish Premiership does not mean they should automatically be considered as cannon fodder.

There remains a chance that Gary Locke’s severely 
hampered squad will find the restraints placed on them just too much to overcome, but it is far too early to tell exactly how they will fare. For all we know, they could yet end up in the top six, as fanciful as that may seem. The point is, football is not played on paper; it is hostage to the most illogical quirks. So, anyone who expected Hibs to rock up at Tynecastle and swat Hearts aside just because they have the more established 
players was guilty of naivety.

For all the adversity facing Hearts, whichever team the fired-up Tynecastle club was to host first this season was always facing a thankless task in the face of a siege mentality. It just so happened that Pat Fenlon’s beleaguered Hibs were the first visitors to a venue which has been bubbling over with defiance and determination this summer. As it transpired, the Hearts players pumped out their chests and fought like warriors, and did just enough to get the better of their city 
rivals.

Sunday’s victory could yet prove a false dawn in their battle against the drop, but given how well they held their nerve in such a big game, the smart money is on them at least giving a few rivals cause to look over their shoulders.

Their defence was magnificent, their holding midfielders were busy and their striker scored. If the creative three of Jason Holt, Jamie Walker and David Smith can spark into life, then Hearts will have the makings of a 
competitive Premiership team.

As for Hibs, the fact they were the first side to lose to Hearts has merely served to exacerbate the grim predicament of the seemingly-doomed Pat Fenlon. Yet, if all the hyperbole is removed, the Hibs manager is not a million miles from having a team capable of challenging for a top-six place.

Let’s not forget, after years of spiralling downwards since Tony Mowbray left, any top-six finish would represent progress considering Hibs were flirting dangerously close to the First Division when Fenlon replaced Colin Calderwood less than two years ago.

Their biggest problem just now is the lingering negativity from the 7-0 debacle at home to Malmo which reopened old sores in the eyes of the fans and badly affected confidence levels on the eve of a league campaign which they started with two of the toughest games they could have asked for, outwith Celtic. They have competed well in both matches, however. There is no obvious evidence of 
players downing tools; they 
are just seriously lacking in 
belief.

With Michael Nelson drafted in post-Malmo, the defence
has rediscovered a sense of stability. They were only 
undone at Tynecastle by a 
piece of real quality by Hearts. Their midfield was never 
overrun and generally created the better openings of the two teams.

Kevin Thomson and Scott Robertson, however, are still feeling their way back to form after their careers nosedived in recent years. These two, like the rest of the team, will benefit once the two new forwards, Rowan Vine and James Collins, find their feet. The strikers have decent pedigree by Scottish top-flight standards and if they can discover their sharpness, the whole complexion of this Hibs team will alter.

It may seem like the end of the world for Hibs and their supporters at present, but it is worth noting that Inverness failed to win any of their opening seven games, yet finished fourth in the SPL last season. Likewise, when St Johnstone won only two points from their first five games of last term, Steve 
Lomas was coming under serious pressure, but less was made of it because Saints are not deemed as big a club as Hibs. In the end, the Perth side finished third and Lomas earned a move to the Championship. If Fenlon can somehow ride out the storm, one positive result could alter everything.

It wasn’t long ago that, from starting last season as one of the favourites for relegation, Fenlon suddenly had Hibs topping the SPL with a squad weaker overall than the current one. Hibs have also reached two Scottish Cup finals in succession under his charge.

Despite the current negative perception, created largely by the 2012 Scottish Cup final and the Malmo debacle, Fenlon’s record showed progress in his only full season in charge so far. He can only really be judged accurately if allowed the current season to improve on last season’s comfortable seventh-place finish.

Having said all that, the fact he has now presided over the three results – Malmo and two derbies - which have given Hearts fans their most gleeful moments of the last 15 months does little to aid his hope of being granted much longer at the tiller.