STEPHEN ELLIOTT believes Hearts are better equipped to mount a challenge to the Old Firm than they were last term.
The Irish striker played a prominent role in the side that stormed into title contention a year ago under Jim Jefferies after winning 11 of their 13 league games between October and January. In the end, Hearts lost key men and momentum and ended up having to settle for a distant third-place finish. But as the Tynecastle side slowly begin to build a head of steam on a platform of mean defending and formidable home form, there’s a feeling growing that Paulo Sergio’s team are ready to give Rangers and the increasingly-vulnerable-looking Celtic a genuine run for their money.
If they are to carry their impressive recent form, which has seen both Celtic and Dunfermline beaten 2-0 this month, deep into the winter, Elliott feels they will be better placed to cope than they were in the closing stages of last season. He bases this on the impressive strength in depth of the current squad allied to the experience they will have garnered from the highs and lows of last season.
“We were flying for a spell last season and then all of a sudden we were struggling to get a win, but if we were able to get into a challenging position again this year I think we’d be able to cope better because of last season’s experience. Last season ended disappointingly but we’ve got to take things on to another level this season. We slipped up towards the end of last season, which possibly came from the fact we were so far ahead of the rest. We’ve got a good enough squad to do better than we did last year. If the manager has injuries or wants to change things, he has plenty players waiting in the wings to come in. There’s probably more depth to the team than there was last season.” Elliott can vouch for that as he currently finds himself out of the starting XI. Nonetheless, he’s not getting disheartened because he knows that, sooner or later, his services will be called upon. The way things are going for Hearts, he has reason to hope that, when he does eventually force his way off the bench and back into the starting line-up, he will be helping carry a challenge to the Old Firm. Since arriving in Scotland in summer 2010, Elliott has never been acquainted with fear of the big two.
He respects them for their ability to consistently occupy the top two places, but, on a one-off basis, he views them simply as there for the taking. “Since I’ve been here, there’s been absolutely no fear of the Old Firm,” he says with conviction. “Especially at Tynecastle, I think teams fear playing us more than we fear them. When you look at our result against Celtic and then them being lucky to get a draw at Kilmarnock on the same day Rangers slip up at home, you just never know what might unfold. If we just keep taking care of our own results, who knows?
“Last year we won 11 games out of 13 around this time of the season. If we can do that this year, then brilliant, but even if we can get somewhere near that run, it would bode well for our league position. If we do go on a run like last season again I would expect it to take us pretty near the top of the table. We’re starting to get used to the manager and he’s getting used to us and you can sense a bit of momentum building after a couple of really good results in the last few weeks. If we can get another win on Sunday against Rangers it would be a great boost but we’re not getting carried away. Over the years the Old Firm have shown consistency over full seasons whereas, although we went on that run last year, we didn’t show the consistency needed over a season to challenge them.”
There’s no shortage of bullish confidence in Elliott’s tone with regards to the direction his team is heading. However, on a personal level, he knows, after almost 15 months in Gorgie, he needs to get himself established in the starting XI once for all. “I think my Hearts career has gone all right but you’re always wanting to do better,” he says. “Last season was a good introduction for me, but this season hasn’t gone as well as I’d planned so far. If you’re out the team like I am just now, you’ve just got to be ready to take your chance when it comes along.
“The team have picked themselves up over the last two games since I’ve dropped to the bench so I’m not expecting many changes for Sunday providing nobody picks up an injury. There’s loads of competition here in every position. We’ve got a really good squad and that’s the main reason we’re favourites to finish just behind the Old Firm.”