Losing 4-1 to an imperious Celtic at Parkhead on Saturday was the worst preparation possible for Hearts’ Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final, because it is not exaggerating to suggest that their entire season may well rest on the forthcoming encounter with Inverness at Easter Road.
The concern for Hearts is whether a comprehensive defeat to Celtic damages confidence amongst their young players.
The loss was not unexpected given Hearts’ depleted resources, with Marius Zaliukas, Ryan Stevenson and Scott Robinson all missing. Manager John McGlynn outlined his worries that, with six teenagers and two 21-year-olds involved on the day, morale may be affected by the outcome.
He can only hope that the resilience synonymous with young players overhauls any lingering disappointment from the trip to Glasgow. Danny Wilson made his debut after joining on loan from Liverpool, whilst Callum Tapping appeared for the first time at senior level for Hearts as a second-half substitute.
“With young players, the last thing they want is to get confidence knocked.
“This result will do that,” admitted McGlynn.
“We talked after the game about certain situations. Young players can be resilient and can bounce back and that’s what we’ve got to do because we have a big semi-final coming against Inverness.”
If that was a philosophical outlook, McGlynn left his youngsters in no doubt about his anger over their start to the match.
Hearts went 1-0 down to a straightforward Gary Hooper goal on 90 seconds, and Georgios Samaras doubled the advantage ten minutes later. Celtic were in control and played possession football thereafter. Jason Holt halved the two-goal deficit midway through the second half to hint at a possible comeback because Hearts were certainly far more composed after the interval compared with the first 45 minutes, however Celtic’s clinical finishing took over as Hooper and substitute Lassad Nouioui scored twice in the last five minutes.
“It wasn’t the start we wanted, to go down after 90 seconds and certainly not to be two down after 12 minutes,” said McGlynn. “It was a mountain to climb but we stuck together to get a goal back. With five minutes to go, we thought we had a wee chance of sneaking another goal as Celtic, for all their superiority, didn’t really cash in on it. We then lost two soft goals towards the end, which were easily preventable.”
Celtic’s first two goals came from rampaging runs down the right flank by Adam Matthews and Kris Commons respectively. Kevin McHattie, Hearts’ 19-year-old left-back, was woefully exposed several times over with Andy Driver not tracking Matthews’ incisive runs. It should be said that Commons clearly dragged McHattie back by the ear during the build-up to the second goal and ought to have been penalised.
Referee Iain Brines allowed play to continue for Samaras to score, and that was the referee’s only aberration of the afternoon.
“In the first half we never got anywhere near close enough to Celtic,” said McGlynn. “Down the wings they got balls in boxes and that always causes you problems.
“The only positive you can probably take is from being two down after 12 minutes to possibly being in with a chance to win the game with five minutes to go. Many teams would come here, go two down early and crumble.
“We had a lot of young players and it’s a hard lesson for them to learn. We certainly need to learn from this. They have to realise that when that whistle goes you’ve got to be ready to go. No way can you allow Celtic to get a goal in the first 90 seconds.”
Danny Wilson was not directly at fault for any of the goals but clearly needs time to reach peak performance. Prior to Saturday, he had played only one minute of competitive football all season – as a substitute whilst on loan at Bristol City against Middlesbrough.
“I thought he acquitted himself very well,” said McGlynn. “He played a (under-21) game on Monday against Southampton so he was probably more match-fit than our players as it had been 16 days since our last game.
“He’ll certainly be a good addition between now and the end of the season.”
If there was some consolation for Hearts, it lay in the fact this was Celtic’s best home performance in the league. Manager Neil Lennon hinted that his team were inspired by the chance to play in memory of the former Celtic coach Sean Fallon, who died aged 90 last week. There was a minute’s applause in his honour before kick-off.
“That’s probably the best we’ve played at home this season,” said Lennon.
“We got off to a great start, played good football in the first and second half and got a great result with some great goals. The players wanted to give Sean Fallon a nice send-off and I think he’d have been happy with that.
“There was obviously a freshness because we’ve had a break and it’s been beneficial for us. I thought Adam Matthews gave us so much zest and quality down the right-hand side. It was disappointing to lose a goal at 2-0 when on you’re on top and that changed the psychology of the game, but our reaction was very good.
“I thought Hooper was brilliant. He got two goals and his all-round game was top-class. That will have added another million or two to his value. Maybe even five.”
Lennon could afford to joke after such a comfortable victory. For Hearts, there is some serious work to be done in order to rally the troops ahead of their biggest game of the season.