Hearts fans will reflect on 2018 with a range of different emotions. Any year containing three victories against Hibs has its positives, that’s before you recall the biggest summer recruitment drive in club history.
Unfortunately, injuries to key players impacted on their title challenge after a scintillating start to the new season.
The year began at the Oliva Nova resort near Valencia in Spain, where a winter training camp saw Hearts welcome left-back Demetri Mitchell on loan from Manchester United. He was soon joined by another more prominent loanee when Steven Naismith arrived from Norwich City.
They both played in the first competitive outing after the winter break as Hearts knocked bitter rivals Hibs out of the Scottish Cup. A 1-0 victory at Tynecastle Park came courtesy of Don Cowie’s goal and prompted manager Craig Levein to comment that “natural order” had been restored in the Edinburgh derby pecking order.
That prompted a seethe from Easter Road, but it was the first of several remarks Levein would issue throughout the year in an attempt to wind up opponents. Hearts won four of their first six matches in 2018, keeping four clean sheets in the process, and seemed to have returned from Spain revitalised and refreshed.
They suffered two deflating defeats in succession in early March, though. A 2-1 Scottish Cup quarter-final reverse at Motherwell was followed by a 2-0 loss at Easter Road in the league. Chances of finishing in the Ladbrokes Premiership’s European places were now in the slim category.
An enduring positive was the number of young players emerging from the Riccarton youth academy to make the senior breakthrough. Teenagers played more first-team minutes at Hearts than at any other club in a European top flight during season 2017/18 – a total of 4,826 minutes.
Hearts beat Hibs at home in the penultimate match of the season thanks to goals from Kyle Lafferty and Naismith, but they finished sixth in the table – ten points behind fifth-placed Kilmarnock. That prompted Levein to take serious action as he dramatically overhauled his squad to improve the club’s fortunes.
A total of 18 players arrived between May and September, leaving the Edinburgh club with a totally different complexion for the new campaign. Goalkeepers Zdenek Zlamal, Kevin Silva and Colin Doyle came in, as did Mitchell for a second loan spell, plus fellow defenders Ben Garuccio, Clevid Dikamona and Jimmy Dunne – the last named on loan from Burnley. The midfield was augmented by Olly Lee, Oliver Bozanic, Peter Haring, Ryan Edwards, Jake Mulraney, Sean Clare, and Bobby Burns, whilst another loan for Naismith plus the signings of Craig Wighton, Steven MacLean and Uche Ikpeazu reinforced the forward line.
Excitement was building for weeks as supporters anticipated a strong start from their side. There was, perhaps inevitably, one who got away in the end. David Milinkovic developed into a cult hero in Gorgie with his work rate and performances – not to mention Instagram posts – during a 12-month loan from Genoa last year. Levein did negotiate a deal with the Italian club to sign the winger permanently but contract terms could not be agreed and he joined Hull City instead.
Hearts began slowly in the Betfred Cup group stage and, after fielding the ineligible Andy Irving against Cove Rangers, were deducted two points. That left them needing to win their final two group matches to qualify for the tournament’s knockout phase.
Successive 5-0 routs of Cowdenbeath and Inverness Caledonian Thistle achieved the stated aim, with Ikpeazu in particular introducing himself as a replacement for Milinkovic in the cult hero stakes.
The Premiership opened with a convincing 4-1 win at Hamilton before Celtic were defeated 1-0 at Tynecastle thanks to Lafferty’s classy winning goal. It would be the last the Northern Irishman would scored in a maroon shirt as his protracted transfer to Rangers finally went through towards the end of August.
That Celtic fixture also started a truly horrible run of injuries for Levein to contend with. Christophe Berra tore a hamstring and was to be sidelined for around five months, robbing Hearts of their influential skipper. Then John Souttar injured his hip and needed surgery, Ikpeazu required a foot operation, Naismith went under the knife for a knee problem and Dunne was sidelined by an ankle complaint.
Hearts remained six points clear at the top of the Premiership in October despite those woes, but Naismith’s absence would hit them hard. He trudged off in the Betfred Cup semi-final defeat by Celtic and watched his team score only four goals in the following ten games – winning just one.
That semi took place at Murrayfield following an embarrassing fiasco. It was initially scheduled for Hampden on the same day as the Aberdeen-Rangers semi but public outcry forced a switch.
October ended with an infamous 0-0 draw between Hearts and Hibs at Tynecastle during which Lennon was struck by a coin and Zlamal was struck by a visiting fan. Off the field, the Evening News broke the story that Tynecastle’s redevelopment project costs had risen to £18million but the Hearts owner Ann Budge reassured fans the work would be done to the highest standard.
As the year drew to a close, Hearts found form again with Berra and Naismith back fit. A 2-0 victory over Hamilton on Boxing Day preceded a 1-0 win at Easter Road three days later. The winter break looked all the more positive for those results, and supporters would have enjoyed celebrating their derby win into the New Year.