Gary Locke today dismissed the notion that his Hearts team are merely prospering because the pressure of battling relegation has been removed.
The manager instead put their remarkable form since the turn of the year down to a significant improvement in all the players, as well as increased belief levels throughout the squad.
Yesterday’s 5-0 demolition of Kilmarnock at Tynecastle means Hearts have taken 24 points from a possible 42 since the 3-3 draw at St Johnstone in mid-January. Apart from champions Celtic, no other Premiership team has taken more points in that period. Of their four defeats in that time, three came against sides in the top four of the league before their relegation was eventually confirmed in April.
Locke feels claims that Hearts are only in such good form because they are not burdened by the fear of the drop is unfair and disrespectful to the concerted efforts of Hearts’ players and backroom staff to spark a sustained upturn in fortunes.
“I can’t give the players enough credit – I thought they were fantastic against Kilmarnock,” he told the Evening News. “Playing like that, we’d be a match for most teams in the league.
“I disagree with people who claim we’re only playing well because the pressure’s off. Even when we still had a chance of staying up, we were on a decent wee run when we beat the likes of Ross County and St Mirren in January.
“We then beat Hibs and Partick when we still had a chance of staying up and we’ve carried that on over the past month or so even though we were disappointed to get relegated.”
Locke believes his young team, having benefited from intensive work on the training ground and in the gym, now have soaring confidence levels as opposed to at the start of the season when he detected that some of his players felt out of their depth in the unforgiving Premiership.
“It was a steep learning curve in the first half of the season because we had to throw in a lot of players who had hardly played first-team football before,” the manager continued. “We made errors and got punished for them. But now you can see all the hard work from the players and the backroom staff coming to fruition on the pitch.
“They’re all far better players now than they were at the start of the season and that’s testament to the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. The players deserve all the credit going because they’ve put all the hard work in and we’re now seeing the benefits of that.
“This run is giving them a lot of confidence. You can see it brimming through the squad right now. They all believe they can play at this level now whereas earlier in the season I think a few of them thought ‘wait a minute, I’m not quite ready for this’.”
Locke revealed that on-loan West Ham striker Paul McCallum is likely to have kicked his last ball for Hearts. “Paul’s had a lot of problems with his ankle and he went over it again on Saturday, so I think that’ll be him finished.”
Meanwhile, Hearts staged their Players’ Player and HYDC Young Player of the Year Awards dinner last night. Goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald scooped both the Fans’ and Players’ Player of the Year gongs, while Sam Nicholson was Young Player of the Year. Ryan Stevenson’s League Cup winner against Hibs won Goal of the Season, while Liam Smith was the Under-20s Player of the Year.