Aaron McEneff's insight into Hearts' training and the routine that leaves him gobsmacked by Craig Gordon
Relief was palpable inside the Tony Macaroni Arena late on Sunday afternoon for anyone of a Hearts persuasion.
The visitors survived a first-half onslaught from Livingston thanks to Craig Gordon’s brilliance, then rallied after the interval to earn three vital league points through Liam Boyce’s winning goal. For midfielder Aaron McEneff, there was additional solace to enjoy as the team coaches pulled out of West Lothian.
The Irishman was grateful for a second successive starting place after finding himself marginalised for much of the campaign. He was also thankful for the chance to again witness Gordon’s mastery at close quarters in a game situation.
McEneff regularly spends extra time after training sessions working on shooting, with the Scotland international goalkeeper representing a rather mean and perhaps even daunting barrier. Watching those limbs extend to all angles on Riccarton’s pitches is one thing, seeing them defy Premiership opponents every week is quite another.
Fans in attendance were left speechless at Gordon’s triple save on Sunday, although McEneff wasn’t entirely surprised given his midweek routine.
“It was two saves, two posts, and two blocks. Something like that. He is just unbelievable,” said the player. “He does it every day in training. I stay behind in training most days and hit shots at the big man. Sometimes he’s lying on the ground before the ball is even hit and he’s just plucking them out of the air. He’s different class.
“As a team we regrouped in the changing room at half-time and we got ourselves going in the second half. We missed a fair amount of chances to go further in front and the boys at the back took care of it defensively. Thankfully we got it done.
"We didn’t really come out of the blocks in the first half. For whatever reason we didn’t get going and Livingston were well on top but we have a top-class goalkeeper and he kept us in it.
“Then we changed our shape a bit and when we got in at half time 0-0 we knew we had to lift ourselves. I think we did that. We came out in the second half like a different team.”
It is no shock that a frank exchange of views took place inside the Hearts dressing room during the break. Around 4,000 travelling supporters jeered their team from the field at the half-time whistle, with Livingston in the ascendancy and wondering why they hadn’t scored a couple of goals by that stage.
It led to an interesting half-time chat. “These things happen. You come to an away game in Scottish football and we were well warned beforehand that it wasn’t going to be easy,” explained McEneff. “It was my first time playing there. It was a lot of the boys’ first time there and it’s a lot different to when you play Livingston at Tynecastle.
“They were well up for it in the first half but it was frustrating from our point of view that we did not come out of the blocks quickly. But we changed it and got going. We gave it a good go and could have been more comfortable.”
Asked about the widespread booing and jeering, McEneff gave a philosophical response. “As a player it’s important to stay calm. It’s not going to be nice and rosey every game. You have to rely on defenders sometimes and you have to rely sometimes on a world-class goalkeeper to dig you out.
“Obviously you don’t want to rely on that but that’s football. Sometimes you have to grind it out. When we got in at half time at 0-0 we were well in the game and we made changes to the system for the second half.
“As long as you stay calm and trust your ability you know you will get chances. Boycey’s finished his chance.”
McEneff returned to Hearts’ line-up against Celtic last Thursday for his first league start of the season. Not since the opening Premier Sports Cup group stage tie at Peterhead on July 10 had he been named in a competitive starting XI by manager Robbie Neilson.
The intervening five months have tested the midfielder’s resolve and he was delighted to retain his place against Livingston. “It has been difficult at times being out of the squad and being on the bench. You want to get a run and keep yourself going,” said McEneff.
“I’ve started the last two and hopefully I can kick on from that. To be honest, I don’t know how I didn’t score on Sunday. On another day I might have got a goal.”
Boyce’s solitary strike was enough for Hearts to surge five points clear of fourth-placed Dundee United and cement themselves in third spot in the cinch Premiership. It also secured the club’s first away victory since beating United 2-0 at Tannadice back on August 28.
“It’s a good thing. Every game you want to get the three points,” said McEneff. “We have probably played better away from home than we did against Livingston and dropped points. So it’s a great feeling to pick up three points away from home.
“We have started well this year but we don’t focus too much on what’s around us. We try to focus on ourselves. This game is done now and we’ve got a big game next Sunday against Rangers. So we will prepare properly this week and focus on that.”