Plenty at stake for Hearts in business end of campaign

Esmael Goncalves will be relied upon to fire Hearts back into Europe. Pic: SNS

Esmael Goncalves will be relied upon to fire Hearts back into Europe. Pic: SNS

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The lack of excitement among their supporters as they prepare to kick-off their post-split fixtures at home to Partick Thistle on Saturday may suggest otherwise, but Hearts find themselves heading into the business end of a campaign with something tangible at stake for the first time in five years.

A return to the Europa League qualifiers is the clear and realistic target for Ian Cathro’s side over the last five matches of this season. After Hibs’ Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Aberdeen last weekend opened up fourth place in the Premiership as a guaranteed route into continental competition, Hearts’ task is to reel in St Johnstone, who currently head them by four points in the battle for that position.

This scenario means there is plenty riding on the Tynecastle side’s fixtures heading into May for the first time since 2012, when Paulo Sergio’s team resumed after the split just two points adrift of the European places and still had a Scottish Cup final against Hibs to take care of in mid-May.

In each of the past four seasons, Hearts’ fate has effectively been decided by the end of April. In 2013, shortly after Gary Locke had replaced John McGlynn at the helm, Hearts entered the post-split fixtures in the bottom six but 14 points clear of rock-bottom Dundee. With no play-offs in place at that time, they were at no realistic threat of relegation. Aside from trying to climb a few league places, the finale to the 2012/13 campaign represented a pressure-free opportunity for Locke to learn about his squad and pitch in some young players who hadn’t previously seen much action, such as Jordan McGhee, David Smith, Dale Carrick and Billy King.

The following season resulted in Hearts, who had been deducted 15 points after entering administration in the close-season, being relegated to the Championship the weekend before the split after results elsewhere rendered a rousing 4-2 win at Partick Thistle in early April irrelevant in their quest for survival. The final five matches became an exercise in momentum-building amid a period when the club knew they were simultaneously heading out of the Premiership and out of administration. Locke’s team took ten points from a possible 15 – Hearts’ best post-split return since 2004.

In 2015, Hearts were effectively able to spend April and May on the beach after tying up the Championship title by the end of March. Of the six games that remained after their objective was achieved, the Tynecastle side enjoyed three victories but had clearly slackened off as they lost away to Hibs and Rangers, two sides they had previously been unbeaten against.

Last term, Hearts went into the post-split fixtures assured of European football after a pre-split midweek draw away to Inverness guaranteed them a top-three finish on their return to the Premiership. Robbie Neilson’s team still had a mathematical chance of getting second place but, with Aberdeen eight points ahead of them, this always looked unlikely. Any lingering hopes they may have had of catching Derek McInnes’ team were snuffed out by back-to-back defeats by Motherwell and Celtic immediately after the split.

Hearts’ low-stakes endings to recent seasons have been in stark contrast to city rivals Hibs, who, until the current season, have faced season-defining matches in May each year from 2012 to 2016. In 2012, Pat Fenlon had to stave off the threat of relegation after the split before preparing for a Scottish Cup final against Hearts, which they lost 5-1. In 2013, Hibs had a Scottish Cup final against Celtic at the end of May, which they lost 3-0.

The following year, with Terry Butcher at the helm, Hibs ended up scrambling frantically to avoid a relegation play-off in the finale to their league campaign. They were unsuccessful and then ended up facing a play-off against Hamilton Accies at the end of May which resulted in them being relegated. In 2015, Alan Stubbs’ side rallied at the end of their league campaign to claim second place in the Championship ahead of Rangers before losing to the Ibrox side in the play-offs.

Last season, Hibs were kept busy on all fronts as they were pipped to second place in the league by Falkirk, before losing to them in the play-offs in mid-May and then winning the Scottish Cup by defeating Rangers in the final a week later.

Having tied up the Championship title with three games to spare this time round, and with no Scottish Cup final to prepare for after last weekend’s semi-final loss against the Dons, Hibs are enjoying a rare chance to play out their final few matches of the campaign in relaxed mood.

The pressure instead falls on their Edinburgh rivals as they eye a late-season push to reclaim fourth place from Saints. Some supporters are of the mindset that Hearts would be better served by not having European football to contend with at the start of next season. This is a perfectly valid stance in light of the mood-damaging effect of last July’s defeat by Maltese side Birkirkara and the obvious potential for a repeat given that Cathro is likely to have to make several tweaks to his squad over the summer.

In the short term, however, if Hearts were to mount a late-season rally amid a testing run of fixtures and nick fourth place from Tommy Wright’s team, it would spark some much-needed optimism around Tynecastle going into the summer break. As things stand, there is apathy and anger among the fanbase as a result of a season that has unravelled badly since the departure of Robbie Neilson to MK Dons five months ago.

If Cathro could get his side, on the fourth-biggest budget in the league, back into fourth place, it would go a long way to easing pressure and saving face for he and his club this season. The fact their involvement in Europe last summer proved a demoralising experience need not automatically mean it must be the same next time. As testing as it is for any club to be thrust into competitive action just weeks after pre-season begins, Aberdeen and Hibs both showed last summer that Europa League qualifiers need not be deemed an exercise in drudgery. Cathro will view Europe as an early-season opportunity to make his mark rather than an inconvenience.

Despite the lack of fanfare, the stakes are unusually high at this time of year for a Hearts side bidding to salvage their season at the death.