A PRE-SEASON target set by the Hearts manager Gary Locke is now within touching distance. Reaching zero points will give a significant psychological boost to everyone at Tynecastle and that checkpoint is just one win away.
The minus sign in front of their points total – the consequence of a 15-point deduction for entering administration – is almost erased and the prospect of starting afresh is cause for optimism.
Perhaps a note worth making is that, without their 15-point penalty, Hearts would currently sit tenth in the Scottish Premiership. They would be above both Ross County and Kilmarnock having amassed 12 points from 14 games so far this season. That underlines the harsh reality and consequences of the club’s financial collapse during the summer.
In a bureaucratic sense, there is still much voting, haggling, paper-turning and number-crunching to be done to rescue Hearts. On the field there is gradual progress, with Locke and his players eager to reach their very own version of “ground zero”.
Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Ross County followed an inspired 3-1 win at Pittodrie two weeks ago, taking Hearts to minus three points and the opportunity to cancel the negative points tally with one solitary victory.
“Hopefully we are building a bit of momentum,” said forward Ryan Stevenson, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “The big thing before the Ross County game was to try and get two wins on the bounce. We haven’t managed to do that this season. Four points out of six is a positive because we’re chopping points off the deficit.
“We’re on minus three points now so we want to try and get three points in the next league game and get to zero. It will be such a boost for us once we get to zero points. The minus is gone and you’re on zero and you can then look at the teams above. We obviously want to get there as soon as possible.”
The Scottish Cup fourth round takes precedence this weekend when holders Celtic visit Tynecastle for one of the ties of the round. Consequently, Hearts’ next opportunity to gather league points comes the following Saturday when they head to Tannadice to meet Jackie McNamara’s in-form Dundee United side. Inverness Caledonian Thistle are the next opponents at home, therefore winning those three points to get to the critical zero mark is far from straightforward over the next few weeks.
If nothing else, the Ross County encounter showed yet again that the young players Hearts are having to rely on to preserve their top-flight status lack nothing in character. “To be fair, that has been there all season. It’s never been in question,” stressed Stevenson. “They’re all good players, they all have a lot of heart and they’re all in it for the same cause.
“From a footballing point of view it was another two sloppy goals to give away and another twice that we shot ourselves in the foot against Ross County. We were quite comfortable in the game before giving away a sloppy first goal, and the second one was the same. We’ve done well to come back and we could have maybe nicked a win in the end, but we need to brush up on giving away the cheap goals.
“The fans have backed us 110 per cent and, to be fair, they’ve backed us again at the weekend. It’s obviously frustrating for everyone – players and fans – when we give away goals like the ones we’re giving away. Everyone is trying so hard, the fans and ourselves, to try and get to this end goal of catching the teams above us.
“When we concede goals in the manner we did on Saturday, it’s hard for them to take and hard for us to take. At the end of the game, you could see everyone was in it together. The fans gave us a great response at full-time and I thought we were unlucky not to take three points.
“I’ve played in many games like that where the opposition are defending for their lives – as Ross County were in the second half – and you’re getting chance after chance but nothing is breaking for you. I’d asked the referee how long and there were 20 minutes to go. You’re thinking, ‘is it going to be one of those days?’ To be perfectly honest, we can’t really afford any of those days any more. We had to take a point at the very least.
“The positive is we’ve chopped another point of the deficit and the team closest to us lost as well. All in all, we’ll take that as a positive and move on.”
Stevenson also backed Callum Tapping to overcome the disappointment of gifting the first goal to Ross County’s Graham Carey with a misplaced pass.
“Everybody makes mistakes and it’s a learning curve for Tappy,” Stevenson added.
“It’s not a nice learning curve for him but he’s a top player. He’s got a big future here at Hearts and in football generally. He’ll take it on the chin and learn from it. I was speaking to him after the game but there’s not really much you can say to him. He’s an experienced player now who has played a lot of games for us. He’s a top young player and I’m sure he’ll bounce back. He knows he’s made a mistake. Everybody makes them. If it wasn’t him it could have been somebody else. It could have been me or it could have been any of us. It’s just one of those things. It’s important he doesn’t take it as a negative.
“We’ll move on this week because we’ve got a break [from league duty] with the Scottish Cup game against Celtic, so it’s another big week for the club. I love it playing in derbies and against Celtic and Rangers at Tynecastle. These are the games you enjoy playing in. Maybe it will be a nice distraction for us because we’ve done well in the other cup competition. It will be a hard game, but we’ll prepare for it this week and maybe get a positive result out of it.”