DAVE McPHERSON knows there’s no substitute for experience.
The former Tynecastle defender, though, does believe that what the current Hearts team lack in game time, they will more than make up for in the confidence which comes naturally with youth when they take on Celtic this weekend.
The Jambos play host to Neil Lennon’s side in the fourth round of the William Hill Scottish Cup on Sunday and the current league champions and cup holders are, understandably, strong favourites to progress.
However, McPherson insists that Gary Locke’s young side should not be written off.
The last time Hearts beat Celtic in a cup clash on their home patch was back in 1996 when John Robertson scored to secure a 1-0 Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final victory for Jim Jefferies’ depleted side.
But the differences between the Hearts team which lined up that night and the one which will take to the field this weekend are stark.
The class of 1996, despite being robbed of several key players due to suspension and injury, was packed with experience. Gilles Rousset was in goal, while McPherson was joined outfield by the likes of Gary Mackay and Stefan Salvatori. A 17-year-old Gary Naysmith – making his first-team debut – and centre half Allan McManus provided the only youth that night. Fast forward 17 years, and the Jambos will take on the Hoops with a team dominated by players 21 and under.
However, McPherson insists there’s no reason why the current crop of Jambos should go into the game this weekend’s game with any trepidation.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” McPherson conceded. “Obviously, these boys have just come into the side at the start of the season. But every single game they play will help them. They’ve got a lot more football under their belts now and they will be getting used to the pressure and the attention. I think they’ve done fairly well recently and a cup run would be a huge bonus for them. The younger boys just don’t seem to have any fear. That could be a huge advantage.”
A Robbo goal was enough to separate the sides in that memorable 1996 win, his extra-time strike coming after a goalless 90 minutes had passed – but not without incident.
First, Salvatori was given his marching orders and Celtic’s Peter Grant followed him when he was red-carded as normal time drew to a close.
McPherson recalled: “There was a great atmosphere that night. The game had been built up Beforehand and the fans were really looking forward to it. The atmosphere was brilliant and when you stepped out onto the park you could really feel it.
“There was no need for any extra motivation and you really just wanted to go out and do it for the fans. When it comes to the big cup ties against bigger sides, experience is vital. That side of 1996 had a lot of experience running through it and, although there were some younger players, you’re talking about maybe one or two. If you’ve got a number of young players in your line-up then there’s always a danger that some of them might freeze on the big stage.
“Obviously. it’s different going into a cup tie because it’s a one-off game and anything can happen and I think it will come down to who handles the occasion better.”
Individual errors are something which Hearts boss Locke has spoken at length about this season and, after admitting his frustration at the way his side conceded their two goals to Ross County at the weekend, has warned his players that they will have to learn their lessons quickly if they are to get past Celtic.
McPherson was at Tynecastle for the 2-2 draw with the Highlanders and agreed that the Hearts players cannot afford to let slackness creep into their play again. “There are still some basic errors which are costing Hearts,” he continued. “Younger players can be naive but then you watch them and they do something really good. They’ll only cut the individual errors out with more games so I think that everyone just has to let them learn as they go along.
“But, if you’re up against one of the better sides then you definitely can’t afford to make the same mistakes. I think the one thing which might go in Hearts’ favour this weekend is the fact that Celtic have other things on their mind. They are in the Champions League and they know Hearts have a very young squad so there is the slightest chance they may be a bit complacent going to Tynecastle.
“Celtic lost out in the League Cup earlier in the season to Morton, so Hearts know that they can be beaten. And this is a one-off game and you never know what can happen.”