Tynecastle will host a surreal atmosphere tonight when Aberdeen visit on league business. Post-derby euphoria is still detectable in the Gorgie air but, frustratingly for Hearts fans, it is clouded and muffled by apprehension and nerves.
Relegation will be confirmed if Aberdeen win this evening, whilst ongoing uncertainty in Lithuania threatens Hearts’ very existence. Both are bigger issues than Sunday’s 2-0 win over Hibs.
Players have been ordered by manager Gary Locke to forget off-the-field matters and concentrate solely on football. Whilst there is still a mathematical chance of surviving in the Scottish Premiership, they have a cause to play for. In any case, Locke’s squad is so young that many may find their heads scrambled trying to make sense of the financial wranglings which could potentially put their club out of business. It is safer and simply easier to think only of football.
It will almost certainly be different in the stands, where supporters are rightly worried about the long-term prospects for their club. Creditors of Lithuanian companies Ukio Bankas and Ukio Bankas Investment Group (UBIG) effectively have Hearts by the throat and can tighten or relax their grip as and when they see fit. There appears little that Bryan Jackson, the BDO administrator in charge at Tynecastle, or anyone else can do about it.
Monday is scheduled to be the day when Ukio and UBIG creditors vote on transferring a combined 80 per cent of Hearts’ shares to prospective owner Ann Budge. That’s if the planned creditors’ meetings for both companies actually go ahead.
The Hearts players cannot afford to be sidetracked by the uncertainty. “We’re leaving that to the administrators because our target just to go and enjoy playing the games,” said teenage winger Sam Nicholson. “It’s not really the first thing in our minds. Obviously, we want the club to survive because that’s the most important thing. We aren’t really focusing on that, though, we’re focusing on the games right now and getting points from them.
“As soon as we get the ball at our feet, we aren’t thinking about anything else. Even off the pitch, we’re told to just focus on the football side. If we think about the other stuff it could maybe play on our minds. I think everyone here has a really professional attitude and we aren’t focusing on it.
“We’re told by the gaffer that there’s nothing we can do about it and he’s 100 per cent right. We can’t influence what’s going on behind the scenes. We just need to keep football in our minds and keep a professional approach.
“We’re just happy to get as many games as we can and try to help the club survive that way. All the young boys are enjoying it, especially when you see the likes of Billy [King] getting his first goal for the club against Hibs. All the boys were delighted for him and Speedy [Dale Carrick]. That will do their confidence the world of good.”
Hearts’ aim is to harness the feelgood factor from winning the Edinburgh derby. “The most important thing was the win and not letting them relegate us. The whole place here is buzzing right now, and rightly so. We worked hard and deserved the win,” said Nicholson.
“When we scored, I was first to the goalscorers both times. I was just really happy and excited beating them. Seeing all the fans so happy made all the boys happy. That was the best day I’ve had in football, 100 per cent.”
Hearts will need all the confidence they can muster against Derek McInnes’ League Cup winners and Scottish Cup semi-finalists. Ironically, despite the two clubs having had vastly contrasting seasons, both previous league meetings were won by Hearts. More than four years have lapsed since Aberdeen last managed a win at Tynecastle.
“Getting points from Aberdeen will be hard because they are a really good side, but we just need to go out and play,” continued Nicholson.
“That’s the target just now. We need to try and hold this [relegation] off as long as we can. There’s still a chance of us not going down so until it’s mathematically certain then we’re going to keep going. It’s important we keep trying to play the way we’re playing because I think we’re improving.
“At the start of the season, we had a totally new team. All the young boys were pushed up beside a couple of experienced players who were left over. It was going to take a while to get used to it because we weren’t really around each other a lot. I think the more we’ve played with each other, the better we’ve played.
“There have been plenty games where we’ve played really well and not got points. At a young age, it’s important to keep improving and we’re doing that.”
Nicholson’s own development has followed a steep upward trajectory in recent weeks as he cemented his place in the Hearts first team. The 19-year-old impressed once more against Hibs and ensured an uncomfortable afternoon for the former Tynecastle defender Alan Maybury, who was eventually sent off after a series of fouls on Nicholson and others. The uncompromising tackles at first-team level have taken the young winger by surprise, but he is determined not to be intimidated.
“It’s something I’m not really used to,” he admitted. “I expected there wouldn’t be a lot of football played in the derby, it’s about winning tackles and stuff like that. It was a hard game. I suppose you’ve just got to take it when you get a hard tackle because you can’t really retaliate. If you do, you’re going to get sent off. I’m just taking the hits because it’s going to happen at this level. I’m expecting to get clattered from the back.
“When I first started coming into the team, I noticed it was totally different. You get bad challenges at under-20 level, but you don’t really get people going into you as strongly. Some of the tackles are not just tackles, it’s their full body behind it. They’re sending me flying on to the ground and it’s not something I’m used to. Physically, it’s a big difference, but I’m really enjoying it.”