Hearts ready for the ultimate test over next five weeks
Hearts' Premiership title credentials face the ultimate test over the next five weeks. A trip to Rangers plus home games against Aberdeen and Hibs precede a visit to Celtic Park.
Sitting five points clear, they harbour little fear over upcoming fixtures. Nonetheless, by early November, a much clearer indication of their ability to make Scottish football history will arrive.
Not for 33 years has a club other than Celtic or Rangers won the league. Indications so far are Hearts can mount a challenge. They are 13 games unbeaten in all competitions after Saturday’s 2-1 win over St Johnstone, which was more convincing than the scoreline suggests despite some late pressure from the visitors.
The home team created a plethora of scoring chances which, if converted, would have seen a margin of five or six goals between the two teams. Yet they still needed to dig in towards the end. Like champions must do when necessary, they clung on in defiance under some strain to record a narrow but crucial victory.
No-one at Riccarton is speaking about a title win, but neither are they complaining at being mentioned as contenders given their lead atop the table.
Showcasing attractive football whilst retaining a strong and competitive core, Craig Levein’s side aren’t short on credentials, not to mention the swagger within their play.
Whether those are sufficient to keep them top until next spring remains to be seen, but they certainly won’t give up their position without a fight.
They sat 2-0 up against St Johnstone with goals from Peter Haring and Jimmy Dunne – both headers from corners. Then they lost one with 14 minutes left when Ross Callachan converted a composed finish on his return to Tynecastle Park. Last season, and probably the year before, Hearts might have caved in and lost an equaliser. Not now.
“We have more steeliness about us this season than we did last season,” said on-loan striker Steven Naismith. “We’re comfortable being in these situations where we’ve got a slim lead. Their goal came from us going long rather than continuing to play, but overall we’re comfortable.
“People are still trying to take the ball when there is that slight margin and the opponents are coming forward directly. That’s a good trait to have. I had one shot at the goalkeeper and another that I didn’t get over enough. We had a lot of chances that we didn’t take. That’s the negative of Saturday.
“If you look at all the results in the competitive games this season, we’ve pretty much done most things. We have ground things out. Motherwell away was a game where we had to sit solid and not give away many chances. The Hamilton and St Mirren wins were free-flowing football. We’ve got a lot in our armour.
“I don’t think at any point we were really nervous or hanging on at the weekend. It was more a case of being frustrated that we stopped playing the way we could. What caused them problems was us getting the ball and passing it well.”
Naismith is keen not to take the next four matches out of context. Stern tests await Hearts but their season does not start simply because they are playing the bigger clubs. “Saying that would be a bit disrespectful to who we’ve played,” Naismith pointed out.
“We’ve done really well against the teams who were in front of us. Livingston showed that teams will make it really tough for us. The next four games will be more about teams looking to win the games straight away and us worrying a bit more about the opponents, rather than teams setting up to counter us. I’d imagine they will be much more open games, but we’re confident.”
A critical factor in that conviction stems from Naismith’s own personal progress. He is the Premiership’s top goalscorer with five despite not finding the net against Saints. He returned to Edinburgh on loan from Norwich City and is enjoying one of the richest form streaks of his career, underlined by ten goals in 14 appearances for club and country.
“It’s been good,” he explained. “Towards the end of last season, I knew I’d come on to a bit of a game at Hearts. I still had a few wee niggly injuries. I knew I would come back with a good programme and hard work over the summer. I believe in my ability. I knew I would get in positions to take chances and that’s what has happened.”
He is forming a wily strike partnership with Steven MacLean as two thirtysomethings who know how the game works. “It definitely makes it much easier because both of us are experienced enough to know the rules of playing with two strikers,” said Naismith.
“Macca is a very intelligent footballer. If he is going to drop in the hole, I try to create space for him and vice-versa. It has worked really well. We also have a lot of energy in midfield, which maybe compensates for maybe not having as much pace as other strikeforces.”