CHALLENGES have been plentiful at Hearts this week as the club threatens to implode over late wages and dressing-room unrest. Perhaps the biggest yet, however, comes tomorrow on the pitch in Paisley against St Mirren.
Players will be eager to maintain professionalism despite their missing salaries. Resolve will be tested as they strive to overcome dissatisfaction with the Tynecastle hierarchy. Supporters will be looking on with interest to see whether pride comes before pay.
Danny Lennon, the St Mirren manager, knows what to expect: nothing other than professionalism from the visitors. He is preparing his players to face a dangerous and determined Hearts team, with or without wages.
Lennon maintains he is unperturbed by off-field issues in Edinburgh and will treat tomorrow’s opponents like any other. His side could face a wounded animal ready to fight back, a concern which has lodged itself at the back of his mind.
“The Hearts players don’t have any control or influence over what happens behind the scenes,” he said. “All they can do is do what they’re there for. They are very good professionals and they’ve had some good results this season.
“I’ve watched them on several occasions and Paulo Sergio is putting his own identity across in the team. There have always been stories going round, but, when push comes to shove, they have always received their wages so I don’t see that being a big problem for them.
“We have no influence on the Hearts situation whatsoever. We look after our own house; that’s all we can control. Hearts is a team which has finished consistently in the top six for many years now and that’s where our ambitions lie this season.
“Hearts have overcome some tough challenges already, beating Celtic 2-0 and drawing at Ibrox on the opening day of the season. As a club they’ve never been short of controversy in recent times, with changing managers and players, etc. Even now they aren’t talking to the media, so that gives me twice the opportunity to chat. I just hope I’ve got something good to say!”
Lennon laughs. In contrast to those working at Hearts, pressure is an alien concept to him at present with St Mirren sitting comfortably mid-table in the SPL. A recent defeat by First Division Ayr United in the League Cup was a shock to the system, one which Hearts are also familiar with.
Victory tomorrow would propel the hosts above Hearts in the league table – a prospect which genuinely excites Lennon.
“We want to show what we’re capable of by taking points from Hearts,” he continued. “The fact we can go above them if we beat them adds a wee bit of spice, but they’ll have their eye on that. They will try to increase that gap. Moving above Hearts in the league is something that really interests us. It’s a challenge as we look to finish as high as we can this season.
“I haven’t given Hearts much thought other than as a football team and what they’re going to bring to this game. What goes on behind the scenes, from my point of view, can stay behind closed doors. We’ll only be concentrating on exactly what we can control. That’s our team, our players and what we can do in this match. I’ve no idea what Hearts’ motivation will be and it’s of no interest to me.
“We have to rise to that challenge of taking points from top-six teams. We’ve already taken points from Rangers, Kilmarnock and Dundee United, but we haven’t got anything from Hearts for a couple of years. We know how difficult it’s going to be, but rest assured we’ll be doing everything to put that record to bed.
“That’s really an indication of how far we’ve come this year. We have an opportunity to move above Hearts in the league into fifth place. We’ve come on leaps and bounds and we are looking to finish in the top six this season for the first time in 27 years.
“Hearts beat us 2-0 last time and, to be honest, we didn’t give a fantastic account of ourselves that day. We’re aiming to achieve a higher standard in terms of results and quality of play. We want to get the blend right, but that’s the eternal challenge for any manager.
“I’m trying to blend performances with results so that anyone associated with the club can be proud of what we’re doing. We’re certainly working towards giving a better account of ourselves tomorrow than we did at Tynecastle a few weeks ago.
“We are looking forward to the game and we’re keen to build on a very good win up at Perth last season. That was our sixth clean sheet of the season and we’ve done it whilst getting young talent coming through, like Marc McAusland and Kenny McLean. Both of them were involved in the winning goal against St Johnstone, and Jon McShane made his first start. That shows the club is heading in the right direction.
“A league campaign is like a grand national. Clubs like us maybe get over one or two hurdles then fall at the next one. So you need to get yourself back up, you get round the course once then you do it a second time. We’ve got that course to run four times.
“I said our aim is to reach the top six. That’s doesn’t mean if we fail it’s disappointment. To stay in the SPL alone is a wonderful achievement, but as a club which has been in the SPL for a few years now, that can’t be our sole ambition if we want to improve.”
Hearts’ results have been inconsistent this season and the suspicion is Sergio is yet to decide on his best starting XI. Lennon, though, remains a fan of the Portuguese coach.
“Paulo has come over, he’s adapting to the culture of Scottish football. Foreign coaches are very passionate and they show their emotions. It’s up to the individual. You’ve got to control your own emotions.”