As one of the senior figures in Hearts’ cosmopolitan dressing-room, Jamie Walker is in no mood for sugar-coating his team’s current predicament.
The 23-year-old may still be one of the younger members of the squad, but the longest-serving player at a club he grew up supporting has a better grasp than most at Tynecastle about the demands and expectations placed on anyone wearing the maroon jersey. He is all too aware that, right now, they are not being met.
As part of a team who fought valiantly when relegated amid the ultimate adversity three seasons ago, Walker is alarmed by the fragility of the current side.
Sunday’s 5-0 thrashing at home by Celtic – Hearts’ heaviest league defeat at Tynecastle in 44 years – marked a fifth loss in six games, and their 15-goal talisman, who questioned the fight and application of some of his team-mates after the Scottish Cup capitulation away to Hibs in February, is clearly exasperated by the lack of resilience.
“Over the course of the season, the way we’ve reacted to losing a goal has been a problem,” Walker told the Evening News.
“As soon as we go behind, we struggle to get any momentum back in the game. You can sense the heads going down when we have a bit of trouble, so it’s something we’ll need to look at. Look at the results we’ve had, even going back to the Dundee game [in December] when we lost a goal and ended up caving in.
“I think we were a bit stronger last season. We were obviously coming into the league off a season where we had been winning most weeks in the Championship, but we seem a bit fragile just now. We know we’re on a bad run of results and performances, and when we lose a goal the heads go down.”
Walker believes the amount of upheaval at Hearts this season has been a major factor in their slump over recent months. He is massively impressed with Ian Cathro and is confident that he will prove a shrewd appointment in the long run, but he feels that the cumulative effect of having to change head coach and then overhaul the majority of the squad midway through a campaign has ultimately had a damaging effect on Hearts’ bid to challenge Aberdeen for second place.
“There were obviously a lot of changes in January and it’s not really worked, has it?” Walker said.
“The change in manager half-way through the season hasn’t helped, and neither has the change in players in January. It’s been hard and it’s kind of unsettled us.”
Cathro has come under fire in some quarters after winning only five and losing nine of his first 17 matches in charge, but Walker is keen to stress that he feels the players – and not the head coach – should carry the can for the poor form.
“I still think things will come good in the long term,” he said. “I like the gaffer a lot – he’s got great ideas. If you look at the performances, some of the boys have obviously let him down, and as a team we’ve let him down. But if he’s given time, I think he can lead the club to good things over the long term.”
Hearts have slipped 20 points adrift of second-placed Aberdeen and ten behind third-placed Rangers. Walker feels Hearts’ target for the remainder of the season must be to ensure they reclaim fourth place from St Johnstone – whom they visit tomorrow night – and give themselves a chance of salvaging a return to the Europa League.
“I’d be lying if I said we were going to catch Rangers because we’re miles behind now,” he said. “We just need to try and get back into fourth place first and then keep hold of it. We’ve got eight games left so we just need to try and pick up as many results as we can and finish as high as possible.”
Hearts know much rests on this week’s trip to McDiarmid Park, where they haven’t won in their last seven visits. The Tynecastle side have triumphed only once in their past 12 away games in all competitions and have won just seven of their last 32 matches on the road over a 17-month period. No-one is under any illusions about how hazardous tomorrow’s match could be. “Over the last few years, even when I was a supporter following Hearts, we’ve not been great away from home,” said Walker.
“We’ve always been better at Tynecastle. Going to St Johnstone is always a really tough game.
“I don’t want to say it’s a must-win, but it’s certainly a big game. If they beat us, we’ll be five points behind them, so we need to get a result. If we can win there, it takes us back to fourth and turns the mood a bit before a home game against Dundee, who are struggling a bit, and Kilmarnock away next week. We’ve got to be looking to pick up nine points from our next three games.”