THERE is no white flag raising at Tynecastle despite the gap between Hearts and Motherwell widening in the race for third place.
European football is awarded to all clubs finishing inside the top four in this season’s Scottish Premier League, and Ryan McGowan is quite clear on Hearts’ intentions: third remains the aim.
Paulo Sergio, his manager, stated after last weekend’s defeat at Fir Park that there was too much focus on where Hearts may finish in the league. That is down to the popular perception that the Edinburgh club is the biggest outwith Glasgow, where the Old Firm have reigned supreme in terms of league success for over a quarter of a century.
With the football season entering its critical phase, Hearts are still major contenders to reach the qualifying rounds of the Europa League either through league position or progress in the William Hill Scottish Cup. Whether Sergio likes it or not, that thought is what occupies the minds of supporters.
McGowan is eager to atone for the 3-0 loss in Lanarkshire and explained that there will be no let up from the Tynecastle squad as they pursue their primary target.
“We’re still going for third place, I don’t think you could say it’s gone,” he said.
“Last season we were going for third but it wasn’t until the last couple of games that we secured it. We need to make sure between now and the end of the season that we get as many points as possible to put pressure on the teams above us.”
That starts this Saturday when Dundee United visit the Capital. Their 4-0 victory over Kilmarnock on Tuesday evening propelled them to within two points of fourth-placed Hearts and continued their recent vein of impressive form.
They arrive at Tynecastle following a sequence of just three defeats in their last 15 outings and, Celtic withstanding, are very much the SPL’s in-form team.
“It’s a massive game on Saturday,” continued McGowan. “We’re very disappointed in the way we went about our game against Motherwell and we felt we could do a lot better. We’ve played better than that so we look to put that right against Dundee United, who are doing well at the moment.
“The race for Europe has always been intensifying because we’re getting towards the end of the season. The mood is good in our dressing room. We know what we did wrong against Motherwell and the things we did wrong we need to put right this weekend.
“United have been doing quite well recently and it’s always a tough game when they come to Tynecastle. However, we’re at home and we’re looking for the three points.”
With the return of regular right-back Jamie Hamill from suspension, McGowan is unclear what his role will be against United. Andy Webster is absent from central defence as he begins his own one-game ban for accumulating six SPL cautions. The Australian would love an opportunity to partner Marius Zaliukas and prove his credentials in one of his favoured positions, but he is more than willing to operate wherever Sergio deploys him.
If selected, he will breach the proverbial pain barrier in order to play after sustaining both nose and wrist injuries in recent matches.
“[Against Motherwell] in the first half I went up for a header and I ended up headering the back of Nicky Law’s head. I think my nose is broken,” said McGowan.
“The doc said he thought it was broken but he’s going to check it out again before Saturday. I don’t think I’ll need a mask or anything. It would be a bit unfortunate if it got hit again. I’ve been training all week so it’s not a problem.
“I also fractured a bone in my wrist after the Inverness game up there. I’ve had that for a couple of weeks now but I can’t do too much about that. I just get on with things.”
One of those things he is getting on with is ensuring Hearts don’t give up the fight for third place this season.