THREE goals in six games illustrates John Sutton’s revival under Gary Locke. His winner for Hearts at Kilmarnock on Saturday was a simple three-yard conversion into an empty net, yet it symbolised a player on form.
Since Locke replaced John McGlynn as manager at Tynecastle, Sutton has come to life.
The principal reason seems to be tactical. Locke is a strict 4-4-2 man and has paired Sutton with Michael Ngoo in a two-man attacking partnership. Hearts now carry more of a goalscoring threat than they did under McGlynn, who preferred one central striker flanked by two wingers. Sutton enjoys the support of a partner and positioned himself perfectly to stroke Ngoo’s low cross into Cameron Bell’s net after just five minutes’ play on Saturday. It was enough for victory.
The Edinburgh club began their post-split fixtures in encouraging fashion and recorded successive league victories for the first time this season. Bell saved Ryan Stevenson’s second-half penalty – a moment the Kilmarnock fans enjoyed immensely given Stevenson’s spell at rivals Ayr United – but pressure from the hosts failed to yield an equaliser.
Hearts are now level on points with Hibs, who face Aberdeen tonight, in the bottom half of the SPL. They will be confident of overtaking their city rivals before the season ends if Sutton maintains his rich vein of form.
“You don’t want to be dismissive to the last manager but the gaffer [Locke] was part of the management team that brought me to the club initially,” said Sutton. “I think the way he wants to play is with two up front and a bit more attacking. I’ve really enjoyed it since he’s taken over. I think there’s been a real lift at the club and real ambition in the way we’re playing.
“The goal was all about Mikey really. You’ve got to time your run but you’re relying on the player on the ball picking you out. A lot of credit has to go to him for that. As a striker you make runs and a lot of the time the ball doesn’t come your way. On this occasion he couldn’t have made it any easier for me.
“Last season and this season have been frustrating. I haven’t really had a great run of games, and when I have it’s been playing up front on my own. That’s always a bit more tricky. Since the new gaffer’s taken over I’ve started scoring. I’ve also started missing because we’re creating chances and looking like we could take a few goals off teams instead of feeling frustrated when you don’t feel you’re going to score.
“Hopefully we can take that into next season and get higher up the league because scoring has been a problem for us. I’ve always thrived on good service and I find it easier playing with someone up there. The gaffer has been big on building up relationships with other players.”
Sutton noted the fact his goal had hauled Hearts level with Hibs in the league table. “We’re aware of it as players but I think the fans like to remind us Hibs are meant to have had a really good season and yet we can still overtake them in the league. That’s something we’d like to do,” he commented.
“It’s good having another Edinburgh derby to look forward to. If we can get a win before the summer it would be nice, although before that we have some important games. It’s not really Hibs we want to beat. We want to win our last four games, starting at Dundee next week.
“Saturday was the first time we’ve got back-to-back wins this season. People have said we don’t have much to play for but we want to finish seventh. If we’d lost on Saturday, that would’ve been difficult. We want to make it three in a row now. We haven’t been good enough. Because we haven’t won much away from home, you get a bit nervous. In the first half, we should’ve gone 2-0 up so you’re inviting pressure towards the end. The boys at the back did fantastically well.”
After dominating the first half with an impressive passing display, Hearts were second best after the interval. Jason Holt and Jamie Walker both stood out for the visitors but they found themselves defending for much of the second half. Stevenson could have put the game beyond doubt after Walker was fouled by Mahamadou Sissoko inside the penalty area. His miss made Locke sweat till the end.
Despite a series of attempts at goal by Kilmarnock, Jamie MacDonald made only one crucial save. He parried Kris Boyd’s blasted volley in the dying minutes to earn himself a clean sheet away from home. The three points also took Hearts to within two points of where they want to finish this year – seventh. That could earn them as much as £300,000 extra in prize money.
“We’re aware of the prize money,” said Sutton. “The club is obviously not in a great financial state asking the fans to buy shares and things, so we’re aware the money is important. If you came and watched us play a five-a-side at training, it’s pretty competitive. In a real game you want to win regardless. There isn’t much prestige for finishing seventh but we want to finish on a high. I just hope the squad isn’t dismantled too much because we’re just starting to get it together a bit. There’s disappointment that we haven’t done very well this year, but also disappointment that we’re going to lose a few friends and team-mates.”
For Kenny Shiels, it was a day of frustration with his players jeered from the field at full-time. The Kilmarnock manager was still raging with the dozy Sissoko at full-time and did not hesitate to rip into the Frenchman. He appeared to blame him for the concession of the early goal.
“Everbody starts three o’clock but Sissoko starts at ten past and he deserves criticism. Hearts scored early and got their result,” said Shiels. “The shape in the second half was much better and we created chances for forwards but didn’t finish. You get days like that but it didn’t go for us. We won at Tynecastle and got the rubs so you have to take it on the chin and realise it wasn’t going to be our day. To get booed off at the end was brilliant. It made me feel good because it’s testament to how far we’ve come.
“Losing 1-0 to Hearts and getting booed is testament to what we’ve done. It’s frustration and I understand it. It happens to all of us in our work and what we do. You lose your temper and you swear, that’s frustration.”