KENNY BLACK’S affection for Hearts is genuine and dates back to the mid-1980s. Yet he travels to Tynecastle tomorrow eager to exploit the disruption there, arguing that those in the home dressing-room cannot be in the right frame of mind for football.
Motherwell’s assistant manager, who spent five years as a Hearts player, believes the current squad is understandably struggling to focus on games. He attributes this season’s inconsistent results to the unsettling effect of ongoing financial problems and low morale in the dressing-room.
Even though he is willing a Motherwell victory tomorrow, Black takes no pleasure from the current disorder. It’s simply his job to use it to his team’s advantage. Hearts’ wages are delayed since December 16, with no sign of when they will be processed. Consequently, players are seeking moves in the January transfer window. Eggert Jonsson has already secured his, Andy Driver wants a transfer, whilst Ryan Stevenson has walked out on Hearts completely.
Black looks on from afar in dismay. “It’s difficult for the players and we all know they are professional sportsmen who have livelihoods,” he told the Evening News. “We can dress it up all we want. You can’t go into games in the right frame of mind if you have that hanging over you, wondering where your next pay cheque is going to come from.
“As a player you go out and train to the best of your ability Monday to Friday. Come a Saturday, you want to do your best for the club and the fans. But you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s very disruptive for the players, let’s not be kidded on.
“I feel a lot of sympathy for the players and supporters. Hearts is a proud club and a very famous club which is going through the wringer due to off-the-field activities. That isn’t nice to see because I had five great years there.
“Hearts have had inconsistent results this season, which is only to be expected. I’m sure they tend to block that out when the game starts but it’s so difficult. Every player has a different mentality and then you have disgruntled supporters as well.
“I was at Tynecastle recently for the St Johnstone game and I felt, after Hearts lost the opening goal, you could see the crowd getting impatient. Then they missed the penalty and St Johnstone scored. That’s just the way things have been going for Hearts. They bounced back against Dunfermline and they’ll certainly be looking to build on that against us.”
Last week’s 4-0 victory was a light in the darkness, yet it’s almost been overlooked because of subsequent events. Driver submitted a formal transfer request on Tuesday, Jonsson’s imminent transfer to Wolverhampton Wanderers was announced on Wednesday and yesterday news broke of Stevenson’s walkout.
At the end of yet another tumultuous week, those available to play will doubtless be grateful for the opportunity to do just that. Plus there is the chance to impress any potential suitors ahead of January. Regardless of the number of departures, Black still expects Hearts to be in contention for Europe come the end of the season.
“I’m not sure if Eggert Jonsson will be considered for playing before he moves in January,” he continued. “That might be put to the back burner. If they are receiving £200,000 for a player in a couple of weeks, will he be considered in the meantime? I wouldn’t have thought so.
“There will be a lot of Hearts players looking to get themselves into the team, either to stay there for the rest of the season or to try and move on in January. It’s a dangerous thing from our point of view to be up against guys who are out to prove a point, not only to Hearts but to any prospective future clubs. That’s a threat to us which we’re well aware of.
“Hearts will still be looking to finish third and get into Europe next season. We don’t know what’s going to happen in January. Jonsson is leaving, Andrew Driver is transfer-listed and Calum Elliot’s already gone. I think there are plenty twists and turns to come off the park. A lot of their young kids have been sent on loan and might feature later on.”
Black only dedicates a certain amount of time to analysing Hearts before turning his attention to Motherwell. He is keen to accentuate the confidence coursing through Fir Park. Motherwell sit third in the SPL and bring a quite astounding away record with them to Edinburgh. From ten away games in all competitions, they have mustered eight wins, a draw and one solitary loss, albeit a comprehensive one at Celtic Park in September.
“Away from home we’ve been absolutely spot-on. Losing 4-0 at Parkhead was the only blip,” said Black. “There’s less emphasis on taking the game to the opposition when you’re away from home. You can take the sting out of it and bed yourself in. Motherwell have players who are accustomed to breaking quickly, like [Jamie] Murphy, [Michael] Higdon, [Nicky] Law, [Omar] Daley and [Chris] Humphrey.
“If you are the away team, keep a zero in your goals-against column for as long as possible, then you’ll have a chance. Even though we have good away form, we’ve struggled at Parkhead and Ibrox. Even at Tannadice, Pittodrie, Easter Road and Tynecastle it’s a big task to compete and win games. You need to be at your best and tomorrow won’t be any different.
“A few weeks ago, up at Inverness, they were bottom of the table and we didn’t give a good account of ourselves. They didn’t deserve to lose but we ended up winning 3-2. That’s what happens when things are going for you. We’re up against a formidable Hearts side who haven’t had their problems to seek recently. But they had a really good performance last weekend and a decent display at Celtic Park the week before. They should have got a point there.”
It is two years since Motherwell last lost at Tynecastle and their last visit there produced a thrilling 3-3 draw in which they recovered from a 3-0 deficit. “We drew 0-0 there last season in a match which could’ve gone either way. The 3-3 game we were possibly unfortunate not to win despite going 3-0 down. After getting back level we still had opportunities.
“It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow so I’m sure the supporters will be looking for that kind of game again. I’m not so sure we’ll be looking for it to be as open as that, but if we get any sort of result we’ll be satisfied. That’s not being negative. We realise the quality Hearts have.”
Amongst that quality is striker John Sutton, who scored 17 goals for Motherwell last term but finds himself on periphery of Paulo Sergio’s Hearts squad. His replacement at Fir Park, Higdon, is thriving with nine goals in 19 appearances to date. He represents one of many dangers to the hosts tomorrow.
“Higdon has been excellent for us, he’s performed really well up front,” explained Black. “After last season’s cup final we sat down and had a look at things. We lost John Sutton and Franny Jeffers, and you’re always worried when you bring new players in like Higdon, Law and, latterly, Tim Clancy and Stephen Hughes. You’re apprehensive about how quickly they can settle.
“It’s been great for us how well they have adjusted here. Our form since the start of the season has been really consistent, particularly away from home. We wanted to do better last season and get into the top six. That is a must.
“We find ourselves in the lofty position of third right now but we’ve taken no notice of all this talk of splitting the Old Firm. We know how difficult that is. Look how difficult Hearts found it last season after their great run of form. Our priority is maintaining consistency.
“Hopefully we’re getting close to that, which brings a little bit of pressure because people begin to expect a wee bit too much. We certainly aren’t looking too far ahead of ourselves. If we were to finish where we are just now, it would be an absolutely excellent season.”