Whilst some clubs in previous years have endured a meek exit from Scotland’s top flight, that cannot be said of Hearts this season. They have fought off relegation against Hibs and Aberdeen this week and earned the right to march bravely on to Firhill tomorrow.
Winning the Edinburgh derby and securing a late draw against Aberdeen ensures, arithmetically at least, that Hearts can still survive despite being 18 points adrift at the foot of the Scottish Premiership.
Realistically, salvation is beyond them but there is much to be admired about their fighting qualities.
They beat Hibs in a pulsating derby match at Tynecastle on Sunday, when defeat would have confirmed their descent into the Championship. They were three minutes from relegation at the same venue against Aberdeen on Wednesday night when Jamie Hamill stroked home an equalising penalty to give their top-flight existence the kiss of life.
Now it gets even more critical. Second-bottom St Mirren are the only team Hearts can catch. The Paisley club must lose all of their remaining six matches and Hearts win all theirs for Gary Locke’s side to survive. Even then, they would be relying on goal difference being in their favour.
A draw or win for St Mirren against Motherwell tomorrow would render Hearts’ result against Partick Thistle inconsequential. For those involved, it is simply a case of trying to continue the show of defiance and make sure they go down without regrets. “We’ve just got to keep this going as long as possible. We’re not going to go down without a fight,” said midfielder Scott Robinson. “It’s a hard task and it’s looking harder than ever now. It was difficult at the start of the season and it looks even worse now, but we’ll never give up. We’ll go into every game trying to win and that will be the same even if we are already down. We want to prove we’re good enough for this division.
“When the fans are like they have been in the last two games, you want to run that extra five yards, put in tackles everywhere and try to get the result. They’re great when they create that atmosphere. I hope they can stay behind us until the end of the season, although I know it must be hard.
“It’s not a nice feeling thinking you’re going to be relegated. I’ve never had that feeling before and I can imagine it’s not going to be nice when it happens. You feel that a club like Hearts deserves to be in the top flight, playing against the big teams. I’m sure we’ll get back to where we belong if we get our heads down and work hard in the Championship.”
Walking off the pitch after the dramatic 1-1 draw with Aberdeen on Wednesday evening, Robinson thought Hearts had been relegated. “I thought we needed the win. I thought that before kick-off, but I came off and they said we’re not relegated,” he said with a sheepish smile. “It wouldn’t have been nice to get relegated at home. At least we showed fighting spirit when we went down to ten men [after Danny Wilson’s sending off] and it looked like we could’ve nicked it at the end.
“It was a pleasing second half. The boys are coming on a lot. There were games earlier in the season where we didn’t turn up. You could say, with being young, there was inconsistency but a lot of the players have learned a lot. It can only stand them in good stead for next season.”
The 22-year-old admitted he had complete confidence in Hamill scoring his penalty. “I trusted him. He’s got a good penalty record and I just expected him to score. He’s scored so many penalties for Hearts and he did his usual job and showed great composure.”
Asked if he would have swapped places with Hamill, Robinson replied: “Yes, definitely. I love taking penalties. In all the shootouts we’ve been involved in, I always put my name forward. I never shy away.”
Partick are now safe from automatic relegation but are unlikely to relax given the play-off spot is far from decided. Hearts’ previous visit to Firhill came last August, when a solo Jamie Walker goal secured a 1-1 draw. At that stage, hopes of survival were high despite the pre-season 15-point deduction for entering administration.
“I think it was only the third game of the season. We’d beaten Hibs, then we drew at Partick and beat Aberdeen the following week. We were flying,” recalled Robinson. “It’s just unfortunate we couldn’t keep that going over the course of the season. We’ve shown in spells that we’re a good team.”
The longer the season has gone on, the more the performances of Hearts’ young players have improved. Robinson was a regular starter but found himself out of the side against Hibs and Aberdeen. He played 45 minutes as a substitute on Wednesday night after replacing striker Paul McCallum and is eager to reclaim his place. “I got an injury in training last week before the Hibs game. I was struggling and the gaffer said he wasn’t going to take any chances in a game like that. He put Jason Holt in and he’s a reliable player who did a great job. I was pleased for him stepping in so I’ve had to wait my turn now. I got it at half-time on Wednesday night.
“Maybe we didn’t get going in the first half but in the second we were sharper and got the ball forward. We caused them a few problems. I gave the ball away cheaply a couple of times and I’m a bit hard on myself with things like that because I don’t like giving the ball away. I’m annoyed with that. If I can cut those mistakes out, I’ll be happier with myself.”