Comment: Right now, Hearts fans have every reason to be excited
Something special is brewing at Tynecastle. So much so that for the first time in over a decade, Hearts are taking it on the road. Saturday's 1-0 victory at Motherwell brought the club's third away league victory in succession to start the season.
The last time such a feat had been achieved, George Burley was in the dugout, Vladimir Romanov was in the stand and messrs Hartley, Skacel, Pressley, Gordon and Fyssas were in the starting XI.
If the start of the enduring 05/06 season was built on a rampant attack which blitzed teams, leaving them dazed and confused, then the 2018/19 breed are more chameleon-like.
That has been the case from the very start of the Betfred Cup campaign as the team have not only improved drastically but continued to morph into whichever incarnation is required to get three points or progression in the cup.
On Saturday, defender Clevid Dikamona was the 24th player to feature this season already as he made his debut from the bench. This writer has previously criticised the turnover of players and the vast number which have been used in recent seasons. However, in this case it simply highlights the depth the squad possesses.
There is a robust, talented and experienced spine in Zdenek Zlamal, John Souttar, Olly Lee, Peter Haring, Steven Naismith and Uche Ikpeazu. Around them players can be put in or taken out, moved around and shifted with ease without comprising the solidity and quality of the collective.
The win over Motherwell arrived without Christophe Berra. Harry Cochrane was injured. Craig Wighton and Ben Garuccio were on the bench but did not feature. The effervescent Anthony McDonald and Danny Amankwaa were not in the match day squad. David Vanecek will arrive in January, while Sean Clare, who has the management team very excited, has just signed.
Craig Levein now has an abundance of options and genuine quality competition. Players know they face a challenge just to stay in the starting XI. Certain standards are required. If they don’t play well they at the very least need to show a work ethic and compete. It is this which has made Hearts into a more consistent outfit, no longer pushovers.
Tactically, the range of options keeps fans guessing, let alone the opposition. On paper, the XI which started against Motherwell looked like it was going to be 3-5-2. Conclusions were finally reached well into the first half that it was 4-1-4-1 with a great deal of flexibility within it.
Although not at his best despite scoring the winning goal, Steven Naismith is key to it all. His versatility and intelligence allowed Levein to station him out on the left knowing he would craftily support Ikpeazu. The way he scuttled onto a loose ball to score at Fir Park showed just that. He is also Scottish football’s finest pointer, cajoling, encouraging and dictating team-mates.
During the first half when Hearts were still adjusting to the game, Naismith was in constant dialogue with Hearts assistant Austin MacPhee. He is the management team’s voice on the pitch.
Yet, it’s not him that wears the captain’s armband in Berra’s absence. That task belongs to Souttar. Imperious, colossus, dominant. Just some of the words used to describe his performance against Motherwell.
The 21-year-old was joined in the middle of defence by 20-year-old Jimmy Dunne. Both stood up to the aerial and physical threat posed by the Steelmen. Previously, a striker like Curtis Main would have had a field day against such a partnership. Him and Ryan Bowman were kept on the leash as if Souttar and Dunne were out for a leisurely stroll around the park.
Souttar was man of the match. The new Scotland international continues to grow in stature. Improving as a defender’s defender has not affected his ability on the ball. He was composed throughout and played a couple of quarterback passes out to Michael Smith on the right. It was a captain’s performance as he relished the competitiveness of the encounter.
He’s an early contender as a candidate for player of the season. And if Aberdeen value Scott McKenna at over £6million, it would be interesting to hear their valuation of a player who is more rounded and has more experience.
In the matter of a few months, so much has changed around Tynecastle. Yet, perhaps the biggest change surrounds the relationship between team and fans and even the club and fans. The frustration and anger from last season seeped into this season, and with Hearts struggling against Raith Rovers in the Betfred Cup group stages, Levein was berated from the stands. There was the feeling it could turn mutinous sooner rather than later.
Now there is a vibrancy among the support. None more so than when the team are in their travels. From The Hope CBD Stadium to East End Park and Rugby Park and then to Fir Park, thousands travelled in fine voice and positivity rather than the passiveness which was a hallmark of the away following for a number of seasons, largely replicating the team’s performances on the road.
The support is engaged, revelling in this new found upturn and a synergy with a team and players which give them energy.
Hearts have two winnable – but not easy – league fixtures at home in Livingston and St Johnstone to come before a trip to Ibrox to face Rangers as they look to match the 05/06 side’s eight leagues wins in a row and 12 games unbeaten to stay the season.
Right now, Hearts fans have every reason to be excited.