The final three matches of Hearts’ season carry plenty significance, although it may not initially seem so. It is clear from the Ladbrokes Premiership table that the Edinburgh club are unlikely to catch Aberdeen and must therefore settle for third place. Remaining fixtures against Ross County, Aberdeen and St Johnstone are now vital springboards for next season.
The shortest summer in Tynecastle history starts in two weeks’ time after that St Johnstone match. Ending a barnstorming campaign tamely is something Robbie Neilson and his players are trying desperately to avoid, with their first Europa League qualifier looming June 30. They have lost both of their top-six fixtures so far to Motherwell and Celtic, so rediscovering momentum quickly is crucial.
Goalkeeper Neil Alexander knows the problems which might ensue from allowing the season to peter out. Momentum can be everything in football. Hearts haven’t been short in that department over the last two years but they need it in abundance for the forthcoming European campaign. Alexander makes it clear what is required over the next three matches.
“We need to take a positive mentality into the start of next season,” he said. “We need to carry on a finish strongly, which takes us into pre-season. Then we can start next season well because it’s really important to do that in Europe. We want to finish the season on a high and take that into the summer.
“There’s still a lot to play for. We’re still young and still learning but it’s never nice to lose matches and end the season on a low. We’re going out to finish on a high. We have three games and we have a good chance to win them. If we do that, there’s a good momentum and a good atmosphere in the dressing room. That carries on through the summer, into pre-season and then into the games.
“This has been a fantastic season. We don’t want a really good season to finish off on a sour note. We’ll do all we can to finish strongly.”
The sight of Alexander beating the turf in anger on Saturday summed up a frustrating afternoon against Celtic. Patrick Roberts poking the ball through his legs for the visitors’ second goal was the goalkeeper’s nadir in a 3-1 defeat. It was a day when, for once, the defending in front of him wasn’t up to standard. Sixteen league clean sheets this season is evidence of an overall solid back line and Alexander is confident there won’t be a repeat of the weekend errors.
“I don’t think I could repeat what was going through my mind,” he smiled, in reference to the fist pumping. “We were in possession of the ball and we gave it away a wee bit cheaply. That gave Celtic the opportunity to score. I thought he [Roberts] was going to dink me so I tried to stand up as long as I could. He seemed to delay and then he just managed to toe-poke it through my legs. When you’re trying to stand big, that’s the one area where you’re vulnerable.
“I was thinking at 1-1 that we were the team in the ascendancy and we could’ve gone on and won. To give them such a cheap goal and throw it away a bit brought a lot of frustration in that moment.
“It’s never nice to lose three goals. It’s probably the manner we lost the goals that’s most disappointing. We have been very solid at the back. Sixteen clean sheets in the league this season is a fantastic record. You know you’re going to be put under pressure by a good team like Celtic. They made it hard for us.
“Looking back, the goals could have been avoided. Celtic dominated a lot of the first half but we came out and had a right go after half-time and got ourselves back in the game. We gave ourselves a right good chance to go on and win the game, but mistakes are costly. We gave soft goals away and you can’t afford to give teams like Celtic soft goals. It’s bitterly disappointing. We got back into it and then threw it away a wee bit.”
With 19-year-old John Souttar, 21-year-old Callum Paterson and 23-year-old Alim Ozturk all regulars in Hearts’ back four, there is plenty scope for improvement. All of the above are still developing and gaining experience, even though Ozturk is already captain at Tynecastle. The most critical part of Saturday’s lesson is to learn from it.
“We’ll learn. We’re a young team and we’ll make mistakes,” continued Alexander. “You’ve got to learn from it. I always believe it’s not a crime to make a mistake, it’s a crime not to learn from that mistake. Hopefully the boys will learn and it won’t happen again.
“You want a strong back four which can play week in and week out. However, there are so many games in football nowadays that you need a strong squad. You need to be able to rotate and give boys games. We’ve been fortunate that the boys who have come in have done fantastically well and filled in no problem. That’s a credit to them.
“We were desperately trying to catch Aberdeen but we’ve made it virtually impossible now. If there is a time to make mistakes, you’d probably rather it was now where we’re coming towards the end of the season and there’s not a lot to play for. At the start, every point counts. Listen, we’ll work on it and hopefully it won’t happen again.”