Falkirk head to Tynecastle this weekend looking and feeling like a different team from that which suffered a 4-1 loss there in August.
Since their 2-1 home defeat by Hearts in November, they have lost only one of nine matches, winning six and drawing two. They sit just two points outside the Championship play-off places and are desperate to enhance chances of a top-four finish.
They would also derive plenty satisfaction from being the first team to record a league win over Robbie Neilson’s side. Twenty league games since relegation have brought the Edinburgh club 17 wins and three draws, with 52 goals scored and only ten conceded. It is a record to strike fear into any opponent but Falkirk are brimming with confidence themselves right now.
Goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald believes a spirited second-half display against Hearts at Westfield two months ago was the catalyst for their recent run. Falkirk were 2-0 down to goals by Soufian El Hassnaoui and Kevin McHattie but recovered after the break, Botti Biabi pulled one back and the hosts almost secured a draw in the dying minutes.
“It’s probably stemmed from that,” MacDonald told the Evening News. “We’ve gone on a good run and taken a lot of confidence from that match. We showed Hearts way too much respect in the first half at Falkirk and they ran over the top of us. In the second half, we went for it and gave Hearts a real fright. We should have equalised in the last minute but Joe Shaughnessy put his chance over the bar from about two yards.
“After that, we went on this run and we’ve all taken confidence from how we performed against Hearts. They were on this unbeaten run – and still are – but we more than matched them in the second half. We looked the better team in spells.
“We played poorly against Hearts at Tynecastle and that’s probably been our worst game, along with Queen of the South away. We’ve actually performed pretty well in a lot of the other games but we’ve had too many draws. Obviously, when you’re winning the confidence grows and our boys are all feeling confident now because of the run we’re on.
“The start of the season at Falkirk reminded me a little bit of Hearts last year: A young team, a lot of new faces, and then we lost Conor McGrandles to Norwich after our second game. He was a big player for Falkirk even at a young age. We also had a new manager. Sometimes you can gel quickly but we’ve taken our time to bed in.”
Gaining momentum leads to thoughts of an unexpected win in Gorgie. MacDonald is not getting carried away. He was one of several experienced figureheads released by Neilson and Hearts’ new director of football Craig Levein last May and still pays close attention to events at his former club.
He knows Hearts’ unbeaten run demands respect but points out that it also brings its own pressures. Falkirk will be seeking to capitalise on the latter on Saturday. “We want to go there and win it because we’re in good form, but we know it’s going to be difficult,” said MacDonald. “What a season Hearts are having. They’re undefeated in the league and we know that. They’ve won every game at home bar one [against Hibs] and a lot of them were convincing wins.
“It would be nice to be the first team to beat them. I think they’ve got that target on their backs now. They’re doing fantastically well and I think everybody is trying to measure up to them. When teams play Hearts now, I suppose there is that incentive there that you can say you were the first team to beat them and stop this run they’re on.
“We’re looking to get into the play-offs and we need as many points as we can for our own cause. Our form recently has brought us right back into contention because a couple of months ago we were nine or ten points off the play-off places. Now we’re only a couple behind.
“You always knew Hearts, Rangers and Hibs would be in contention for the top three places. Hearts maybe aren’t quite in the same boat but I’d say Rangers and Hibs have realised how difficult this league is. Hopefully we can get something this weekend and really state our own intentions that we’re ready to take one of the play-off places.”
MacDonald is also into the final six months of the one-year contract he signed with Falkirk last summer. Although entitled to speak to other clubs about a possible move, he stressed he is focused only on helping his currently employers into the play-offs.
“It’s not something I’ve really thought about. My decision to join Falkirk was for a few personal reasons and I’ve really enjoyed it. Seeing an improvement in the team is great. That’s what you’re always looking for. It’s been a great league to play in and my main focus right now is to help the club into the play-off positions.”