PAULO SERGIO has praised the resolve of his Hearts squad for coming through a hectic fixture schedule still in with a chance of Scottish Cup glory and third place.
However, the Tynecastle manager admits it will still take a massive effort to overhaul Motherwell in the race for third and pretty much ruled out any possibility of his team taking advantage of Rangers’ ten-point deduction to clinch second place.
Hearts played four games in the space of nine days, culminating in their extra-time Scottish Cup triumph at St Johnstone on Tuesday night. Although they lost heavily at home to Celtic in the SPL a week past Wednesday, they showed their spirit in the 1-1 draw at Kilmarnock when a stoppage-time Suso Santana equaliser kept them within six points of today’s opponents Motherwell. “In the last few games, when we’ve been playing every three days, we have missed a bit of freshness in forward areas to be more explosive and create chances,” acknowledged Sergio. “But to manage the team in this period I’m very happy with what the players did. I am also very happy that we have come through this period without picking up any injuries. After Motherwell we have a good period of games on the weekend only, which is good for us.”
Sergio also admitted the off-field uncertainty at Hearts had made their accomplishments in staying competitive until this stage of the season even more admirable. “[The nature of the tiredness] has been mental and physical here,” he revealed. “When the mental is not okay you can be very well physically but you can’t do things properly. The mentality of a player is more important than any other issue.”
To most onlookers, Hearts, assuming they can avoid defeat at Motherwell today, still look to have a decent chance of finishing third, even though the Lanarkshire side were six points to the good with a game in hand before today’s match. While Sergio has full belief in his side, he is wary of talking up their prospects given all the obstacles they have had to overcome this season. With that in mind, he is reluctant to bill today’s trip to Fir Park as a must-win match.
“We fight the problems, we did what we have to do, but nobody can be asking for us to be second or third this season after what we’ve been through. If we achieve third or fourth at the end of the season it will be a great result after a hard season like that.
“You can’t forget that we lost three or four important players in the transfer market – Eggert Jonsson, Ryan Stevenson, John Sutton. They were important players for us so we’re not looking at the game this way [as a must-win]. Everybody can be sure we want to win. We recognise Stuart and Motherwell are doing very well, they are a strong side that’s very well organised. But we believe we can go there and beat them so I think it’ll be a very competitive game.”
One factor which aids Hearts’ cause is that they enter this weekend’s game without the distraction of recent months of not having been paid in time after the wages of all the staff arrived safely in their bank accounts on Thursday, as scheduled. Sergio hopes this can remain the case and Hearts can move forward without further off-field hindrances.
“This month they paid us on time and we are very happy with that,” he said. “I trust our board and I don’t believe it will happen again. They are doing everything they can to make sure it doesn’t happen again so we need to be positive. There are moments in life and in football when it’s not easy but you have to be strong to keep moving and focusing on the what you’re trying to do. I’m a positive man – it’s the way I am.”
Not positive enough, however, to be roped into the fanciful notion that Hearts could somehow catch Rangers, whose advantage over the Edinburgh club was hacked back to a still massive 15 points on the back of their midweek ten-point deduction. “I’m not focused on trying to catch Rangers,” he said. “I would like to be closer to Rangers because we have won ten more points, not because they lose ten points. I’m not happy because of the problems of other teams. I don’t know if another team can get second place. Motherwell have shown lots of consistency but nobody knows how it will effect the Rangers players. It might make them better. I believe that a big, powerful institution like Rangers will solve their problems. I’ve had my problems at Hearts but I sat here with the same face and kept fighting. I believe Ally (McCoist) will do the same.”