The Hearts bandwagon rolls into Easter Road this Sunday, and the players are already salivating at the prospect of running out in front of a buoyant and bullish away support.
Nine points clear at the top of the Championship and yet to even fall behind in a league match this season, the most free-scoring team in Britain fear no-one at present. The sight of 3800 expectant Jambos greeting them as they enter the lion’s den for their clash with Hibs will merely add to the aura of invincibility which has built around Robbie Neilson’s swashbuckling team.
“It’s a massive game and everybody’s excited,” said Hearts right-back Callum Paterson. “We’re all buzzing for it – it’ll be incredible. We’re bringing 16,000 to every home game and we’re even taking a massive support to places like Queen of the South, but it’s always great to run out at Easter Road and see the Hearts end packed. It gives you a massive lift. It’s just brilliant when their supporters are cheering for them and ours are cheering for us in the away end. Hopefully we can give them something to cheer about.”
Paterson was in no mood for cockiness as he spoke to the Evening News, but the confidence in every Hearts player you chat to these days is inescapable. “We don’t want our first defeat to come against Hibs,” he said. “We know we’re not going to win every week, but we’re really confident we can get the win at the weekend. It’s a bit unfair to say we’re going to win every game this season, but the team’s gelling well and it’s looking really good so far.”
The trip to Easter Road will bring fond memories for Paterson. On his last visit there, six months ago, the 20-year-old scored a match-winning double as Hearts, already relegated, triumphed 2-1 and sent freefalling Hibs a step closer to joining them in this season’s Championship. Earlier that season, the youngster had headed a derby winner at Tynecastle. “Those are great memories,” he said. “Along with playing against Liverpool, the goals against Hibs are the highlights of my career so far. It’s all about what we do this weekend, though. I don’t really get nervous in games against Hibs – they just seem to pass by without you really noticing.”
Adding to the sense of Jambo exuberance is the fact they go into the game against their city rivals fresh from having racked up their favourite scoreline. The 5-1 win over Dumbarton on Saturday – just like the victory by the same margin against Cowdenbeath a month previously – allowed the Hearts fans to belt out their ditties about the famous 2012 Scottish Cup final triumph over Hibs.
“It’s always good to win with a massive result,” said Paterson. “We’ve had a couple of 5-1 wins and the fans are loving that for obvious reasons but at the same time, it was disappointing to lose a scrappy goal and miss out on a clean sheet. As a Hearts player, you get an extra wee buzz when you win a game 5-1. Sometimes the games go a wee bit flat in the second half, and that’s only natural, but then when we start scoring goals again, the fans get right behind us and that lifts us all.”
Paterson will arrive at Easter Road in fine fettle. After having the early part of his season ruined by a knee injury sustained against Annan in the Petrofac Training Cup in July, he had to endure a few rusty outings as he rebuilt his match fitness. Following a marauding performance against Dumbarton, with a goal, two assists and some wicked deliveries from the right flank, the South Queensferry boy feels he is now back up to speed.
“I was pretty happy with my performance other than one dodgy clearance,” he said. “Scoring a goal and setting up another couple is always good. My crossing was a bit out of the blue on Saturday because I usually shank half my crosses. I’d been working on that with the gaffer and the other full-backs last week, so the work’s obviously paying off. We’ve got two big strikers in the box, so we want to pick them out every time. That’s what we’ve been working on. I was able to get up and down all day on Saturday. It’s taken a bit longer than I’d hoped, but that’s me near enough back to 100 per cent now, so hopefully I can kick on from here.”
Saturday’s victory carried extra pertinence for Hearts as it came on a day when they had picked up their morning papers to find their credentials being questioned by both Hibs midfielder Scott Robertson and Rangers forward Kenny Miller. Robertson suggested that Hearts would be unable to maintain their scintillating start, while Miller mused that they may be short of the required mental toughness to see a title challenge over the line. Paterson is adamant that his side have enough fortitude to remain in pole position all the way to the end of the season.
“People are always going to come out and question you,” said the full-back. “It’s very unlikely that we’re going to win every game for the rest of the season, but you have to believe that you can do it. I’m not saying we’re going to go through the season unbeaten, but the more points you get, the higher up the table you are and right now we’re where we want to be.
“We feel we’ve got the nerve to go the distance. You’ve always got to believe – it’s looking good so far. Rangers are picking up points – they’ve just beaten Raith Rovers 6-1, but at the same time we’ve beaten Dumbarton 5-1 and it’s not the first time we’ve scored five.”
The new-found depth of squad at Hearts gives Paterson further reason for optimism. This season, for example, Scott Robinson, who was a first-choice pick in midfield last term, can’t even get a place on the bench. “Last season we only had about 12 players and we were running out of players by Christmas,” said Paterson. “That’s not going to happen this season. We’ve got much more players to choose from and everybody’s got different qualities. There’s real competition for places.”
Paterson believes the positive mood among the Hearts support can also give his team a vital edge. While Rangers and Hibs fans are both – to varying degrees – disillusioned with aspects of their clubs, the Hearts fanbase has united in support of the post-administration revival under Ann Budge’s ownership. “The fact the fans are so buoyant at the moment can help us,” he said.
“As players, we’ve got to keep them happy, though. If we lose a couple of games, they’ll get fed up. They’re loving coming to the games at the moment and they can help us get over the line in tight games.”