Hearts brought an entirely new back four to cope with the business end of the Scottish season. With just one goal conceded in the last three games, Ian Cathro’s January recruits are faring pretty well on both league and Scottish Cup fronts.
A 4-1 win against Rangers and a 3-0 victory at Motherwell in the Ladbrokes Premiership preceded Sunday’s goalless Scottish Cup draw with Edinburgh rivals Hibs. Right-back Andraz Struna, centre-backs Tasos Avlonitis and Aaron Hughes, plus left-back Lennard Sowah can therefore be content with the start to their Tynecastle careers.
Goalkeeper Jack Hamilton is mightily relieved. He would have been forgiven a sharp intake of breath as defender after defender arrived at Riccarton last month. Familiar faces like Igor Rossi and Alim Ozturk bade farewell, whilst Callum Paterson and John Souttar were sidelined by serious injury.
Hamilton was left in the unprecedented position of trying to familiarise himself with a totally new defence. The transition, despite an uneasy beginning against Raith Rovers and Celtic, now looks to be bearing fruit. Hearts want to build on their solid base, eliminate Hibs in next week’s cup replay and qualify for European football come May. The days of disorderly 3-3 draws at Inverness and Hamilton Accies should be consigned to the past.
“Not conceding goals is definitely a positive,” said Hamilton. “Before, we would’ve conceded a few late goals or stupid goals which would’ve cost us points. Losing one goal in the last three games is a good record. Hopefully we can now go on a wee run and stay tight at the back too. We know the guys further forward will score us goals.
“Because of the guys who have come in, it’s been easier for me to adjust. Aaron Hughes is brilliant, his experience is tremendous. He never seems to really be out of second gear. Souttar and Callum are big misses for us but the boys who came in have all been excellent. Andraz, Tasos and Lennard have settled in well. They are all big players for us now.
“I’m definitely pleased with another clean sheet on Sunday. As a goalkeeper, you aim to concede as few goals as possible so it’s a positive. It’s just a shame we couldn’t take the result. Everybody is frustrated because we know how good a team we are. Things haven’t really gone our way in recent months but we’ve started to pick it up. A few new people have come in, we’ve got a really strong squad and everybody in that dressing-room knows how good we are. Everybody believes in each other.”
A good portion of time was spent stressing the importance of the Edinburgh derby to new colleagues after Hearts signed nine players in total during January. “The fans would’ve made them aware how big a game it is. We certainly made them aware of how big a game it is,” said Hamilton. “They’ve played in massive derbies at other clubs but this one is special. Everybody handled it well on Sunday.”
The experience will have served all concerned well as the season approaches a critical period. Scottish Cup and League progress are Hearts’ dual aims across February, March and April. “Everybody knows the job at hand,” continued the goalkeeper. “It’s about going out and getting positive results.
“We have a good squad, a good management team and everything is piecing together. It’s easy to say that but we need to put the performances in. We can’t look at the games which are past, it’s the games in front of us that matter.
“The whole build-up is the same as this time last year. Even though I wasn’t playing, I was preparing for every game like I was going to play just in case something happened to Neil Alexander. I was also watching how he prepared and learning from him. It’s an important stage of the season and everybody knows what’s required.”
Hamilton continues working to address minor issues in his own game. At 22 and still in his first season as Hearts No.1, he acknowledges he is far from the complete goalkeeper. His place in Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad hinges on consistency at club level.
“There have been positives and negatives. Gall [Paul Gallacher, Hearts’ goalkeeping coach] has been tremendous with me. We go over things and look at how to make certain things better. We talk about how some things could be done better. There are loads of things and you work on them in training. I try to improve on every game.
“Distribution is a massive part of goalkeeping now so I look at working with the ball at my feet. Then there’s shot-stopping, cross balls, everything. You can’t be perfect at something and just leave it aside. You need to keep working on absolutely everything.
“I don’t look at one game and say: ‘I came out and caught that cross, so I’m brilliant at taking crosses.’ You’re not brilliant. Every game is a different situation so it’s about adapting to make life as easy as possible for myself.
“I’m just looking to keep my place at Hearts and, if I’m in the Scotland squad, it’s a bonus. I would love to be in every single Scotland squad but I’ve got to be in the Hearts team. If I’m not in the starting line-up here then I won’t be in the Scotland squad. I have to be doing well here.”
The new-look Tynecastle back four are certainly doing their bit to help Hamilton shine.