Dylan McGowan believes the 15-point penalty Hearts have been saddled with this season has prevented the club’s youngsters giving a true reflection of their qualities.
The 22-year-old Australian accepts that his club had to be punished for the financial mismanagement that led to administration in the summer and is keen to stress that he is in no mood to look for excuses for the fact Hearts find themselves 14 points adrift at the foot of the Premiership. However, while McGowan acknowledges that Hearts let themselves down badly in the 4-0 defeat at home to Kilmarnock on Thursday, he feels that he and his fellow academy graduates shouldn’t be written off on the basis of their struggles over the last few months.
He believes the demands of facing must-win matches on a weekly basis is having a negative effect on a group of players who, until recently, had only experienced the relatively low-pressure environment of life in the Under-20s, where winning matches is often deemed by coaches to be of secondary importance to performance.
Had they been able to start the season alongside all their rivals on zero points, the Adelaide-born defender argues, the young players would have had a better chance of flourishing in the first team and they would currently be well clear of the bottom of the league. As it stands, Hearts have still amassed more points than Ross County, but McGowan feels that rivals like St Mirren, whom they visit on Sunday, and Kilmarnock would have found it a lot harder to emerge from their early-season ruts had Hearts been ahead of them in the league as opposed to languishing several points beneath them.
In the hypothetical event that there was no 15-point deduction, Kilmarnock would have arrived at Tynecastle on Boxing Day only three points ahead of Hearts and under serious threat of being sucked to the bottom of the league if they lost. Instead they rocked up with an 18-point cushion and were able to play with the freedom of a mid-table team. McGowan and his embattled colleagues can only dream of such a luxury.
“If we didn’t have the deduction, I think we’d have been a bit more competitive and would have won a few more games without the added pressure of having to try and get three points every time we play,” McGowan told the Evening News. “It’s definitely a factor, battling to try and get back to zero as quickly as possible and keep up with the other teams. When we’re drawing games, we tend to push a lot more bodies forward because we know one point’s not really enough for us these days and then we end up getting picked off at the other end. It’s definitely not helping our cause.
“It’s also taken the pressure off other teams in the league who would usually be battling to avoid relegation because they can relax a bit knowing that we are so far adrift.
“They know when they play us that, as long as they don’t get beat, they’ll still be a long way in front of us.
“Other teams in a bad run of form know that, as long as they pick up the odd point here and there, we aren’t going to catch them too quickly.
“We’re in this position because of what’s happened beforehand at the club. As players, we’ve not had anything to do with that, but it’s something we’re having to live with now. Through no fault of our own, we find ourselves in that position but we’ve known that since the start of the season so we certainly won’t be using it as an excuse. We’ve still got to be doing better than we are.”
With games fast running out and Ross County and Partick Thistle looking the only teams still remotely catchable to Hearts, it rankles with McGowan that his side were unable to build on the feelgood factor and confidence generated in August when they took seven points from three matches and looked to be homing in on the likes of St Mirren and Killie, who went seven and nine games respectively without notching a league win.
“We’ve missed the boat a bit with regard to catching a few teams,” he said. “If we’d kept up our early-season form, we’d be a lot closer to other teams than we are now. There’s still plenty games left and we’ll keep fighting to the end, but time is definitely running out. There’s no doubt that we need to get wins on the board as quickly as possible. The job’s only getting harder and harder, so the quicker we can get a few victories the better.
“The next three games are massive because they’re against teams in the bottom six, but we said that about the Kilmarnock game as well.
“The only games we’ve won this season have been against Hibs and Aberdeen, who are unlikely to be involved in the relegation battle, so we need to start beating the teams around us in the table as well as taking points off the teams nearer the top.
“We’re obviously up against it, but we still have belief that we’re good enough to pick up more points between now and the end of the season.”
One of the most honest and straight-talking players at Tynecastle, McGowan admits his side will have to be far better at St Mirren Park tomorrow than they were against Kilmarnock on Boxing Day. “It’s going to be a big test of character for us at St Mirren because they just hammered Dundee United 4-1,” he said.
“It’ll be a difficult game, as they all seem to be for us at the moment. Hopefully we can pick ourselves up and get the three points but we’re going to have to play a lot better than we did on Thursday. Apart from Celtic in the Scottish Cup, that was probably the first time we’ve been rolled over this season. Not a lot went right for us.
“It’s probably easier to tell you what went right rather than what went wrong. As a team, we didn’t get up the park well enough, we didn’t defend well enough, we didn’t keep the ball well enough, so we’ve got a lot of things to work on before the St Mirren game.
“We gave away the first goal and once that happens you’re always fighting an uphill struggle. We never looked like we were going to get back in the game. They were good value for their 4-0 win, which is a disappointing thing to have to say, especially in a home game.
“We just need to try and learn from it as quickly as possible and try and get ourselves out of this rut.”