Contrast the emotions inside Tynecastle at full-time on Saturday with those the last time Celtic visited.
The difference in ambience around the place was marked. There was no doubt the visitors deserved to win and break Bobby Clark’s record for time without conceding a league goal in the process. This time, the resilience shown by Hearts was glaring. Last time, it was simply conspicuous by its absence.
Few will forget the 7-0 whipping Celtic administered back in December but recent weeks have proved that the harsh lesson dished out that afternoon has been learned by the youngsters in maroon. It took 57 minutes for Leigh Griffiths to break the deadlock with his first goal since arriving at Parkhead, and the former Hibs idol certainly picked an apt venue to do so. Teemu Pukki’s second in stoppage-time was virtually the last act of a game in which Hearts had stood up to the brute strength, pace and intensity of Celtic’s play.
They were second best in terms of possession, despite adopting a 4-5-1 formation to fill gaps in midfield. Defending at times was gruelling as Celtic attacked relentlessly, and once again Jamie MacDonald was in fine form in the Hearts goal. However, the full-time whistle arrived and brought with it a modicum of satisfaction for the hosts. Not that they were happy losing, but they were content at having shown they have improved decidedly since last facing up to the league champions.
“I thought we played well and defended well but it’s hard going from defence to attack so sharply against a team like that. It would’ve been nice to get something out of the game but that’s football I suppose,” said Sam Nicholson, the 19-year-old winger who was one of Hearts’ best players.
“The improvements are there and that’s all the manager really wants. We’re a young side and, at this age, all you really need to be doing is improving. I’m not saying getting beat 2-0 and improving is good because a result would’ve been nice, but the improvement was there. The manager has noticed it and hopefully the fans noticed it as well.
“You see Celtic passing the ball round teams and in terms of possession they were better than us, but I thought the way we defended and got behind the ball was good. We made it hard for them. A team like that are sometimes just going to get goals. Against any team, we really look to pick up points. If we go out with the same attitude and play positively then hopefully we’ll get something out of the next few games.”
After admitting it was “a bit hurtful” to watch lifelong Hibs supporter Griffiths score – and run off to wind up Hearts fans in the Wheatfield Stand – Nicholson was asked about the reasons for Hearts’ improvement. Before the weekend, Gary Locke’s team had won two and drawn two of their previous four league fixtures. A barren run of no wins in ten appears to be consigned to the past.
“We don’t really know what’s changed. I’m kind of speechless to be honest,” continued Nicholson. “I think we’re all working harder. Not that we weren’t working hard before, but I think everyone is going that extra mile for each other.
“It’s unexplainable how we’ve just started doing well. It looks like everyone is really going for it just now. A lot of players from last year have left and some people think playing three or four games as a new team is easy. Sometimes it takes longer and maybe that’s what’s happened with us – we’ve got used to this level. The gaffer keeps saying to us to stay positive, even when we’re getting beat. If we’re losing 1-0, he says we might as well just go for it and chuck a couple of players forward. Then you might get something out of the game.”
As with most Hearts-Celtic encounters, there was a fair degree of controversy in this one. Hearts harboured a grievance over many of referee Kevin Clancy’s decisions. In particular, Locke believed fouls were committed on both Dale Carrick and Jamie Hamill in the build-up to Pukki’s goal. He certainly had an argument, particularly with Hamill appearing to be pulled to the ground by Amido Balde. However, Hamill himself was fortunate to escape unpunished after kicking out at Virgil van Dijk following a late challenge in the first half.
The day belonged to Celtic, however, and their goalkeeper Fraser Forster in particular. “I’m a very proud manager,” said Neil Lennon. “We’ve just broken a long-standing record and it’s been so long-standing for a reason. It’s a great feather in the cap for players and the club and we maintain our unbeaten record in the league. I thought we showed great composure. We knew it would be difficult because Hearts are a big physical team.
“The goal will do Leigh the world of good. You saw the relief and what it meant to him. He has that accuracy with both feet, he hits the ball with great control and so hard that it’s difficult for goalkeepers to get down. Like Commons, you always fancy him. His scoring record is very good and that’s why we brought him in. There’s an added incentive as a Hibs fan scoring against Hearts but he’s broken his Celtic duck and it’s a brilliant start for him. There’s always anxiety because the expectation is so big but he’s a good professional and a good trainer.
“I’m very proud of the players. This season has probably not been as good as last year but we still have plenty to talk about and I’m pleased about that. Going all season unbeaten may be a step too far but it’s something that’s really motivating the players at the moment. We’re 26 [league games] unbeaten, which we managed under Martin [O’Neill] in 2004 so that’s a great record to equal.”