Neil Alexander will probably bare that toothy grin of his all week. It’s out there for everyone to see following events at Parkhead on Saturday. Having conceded ten goals in the previous four games, the Hearts goalkeeper was inspirational in keeping Celtic out in Glasgow. The feeling of achievement is etched all over his face.
As player-coach at Tynecastle, the porous nature of the Hearts defence this season has gnawed away at Alexander. He felt responsible on both fronts. Strolling off the pitch at Celtic Park, he knew he and his team-mates had picked the perfect time and venue to re-solidify. They became the only team this season to prevent Celtic scoring at home. St Johnstone are the only club to match that deed so far in 2015.
Alexander admits it was an “ugly” display but no-one of maroon persuasion is complaining. The goalkeeper was an integral part of a watertight defence in the Championship last season. This year has been unsettling due to new signings, injuries and suspensions. Everything came together at just the right time at the weekend and the 37-year-old can’t stop smiling. Particularly since his own performance, including several saves to deny Leigh Griffiths, was central to the outcome.
“It was just one of those games,” he said. “I knew I was going to be busy so I wanted to make sure I was on top form and contributing something to the team. We rode our luck a wee bit. There were times when a ricochet here or a bounce there could’ve gone the other way. I managed to get in the right position a few times to make some good saves. It’s always pleasing as a goalkeeper to come to a ground like Parkhead and keep a clean sheet. I was delighted with my own performance and with the boys in front of me.
“Defensively, we were magnificent on Saturday. It was really backs against the wall for 90 minutes. We had a gameplan and we wanted to make it hard for Celtic. We knew we had to defend but we still wanted to cause them problems; still have something going forward and try to nick a result. There was a lot of hard work put in. The boys ran their backsides off so it’s a good point.”
The growing unrest within the home support as the afternoon wore on played into Hearts’ hands. “You know when you go to these places that the fans can turn. They get frustrated. They want their team to score and win and be positive. We defended really well and we stopped them playing. We stopped them creating chances and it was maybe an ugly game from their point of view.
“The fans turned a wee bit and that’s pressure. They’re desperate to win, we’re desperate not to lose. If you keep it tight for the first 20 minutes and frustrate their players and fans, it makes it very difficult for Celtic. We dug in and produced a gritty performance. Maybe it wasn’t pleasant on the eye but we’re delighted at taking a point from what is a really hard venue.”
In the past, many a late lapse has slain Hearts at Parkhead. They escaped a repeat in the dying minutes when Griffiths’ strike was disallowed for offside. “I sort of knew he was slightly offside so I was just praying the assistant ref saw it and put his flag up,” said Alexander. “It was the right decision at the end of the day. The assistant was in the right position, did his job and it was a good decision for us. It would’ve been cruel for us to lose the game right there and then.”
The question remains how did Alexander and the rest of the Riccarton coaching staff manage to restore order at the back? Following last week’s 3-2 League Cup win at Kilmarnock, no-one could have predicted a clean sheet at Celtic.
“I think if we knew the answer to that then we wouldn’t be losing goals at all,” laughed the goalkeeper. “We were excellent at the back last season. We were second only to Celtic in Scotland in terms of the fewest goals conceded. Defensively, we’ve been very disappointing this season. We’ve conceded a lot of goals which, maybe in other seasons, we wouldn’t have.
“There has been a lot of chopping and changing. We’ve got a lot of new faces at the back, players are still getting used to different styles of play and how team-mates play. That takes time but we were solid on Saturday. We were hungry to win the ball.
“It takes time for a new team to bed in. We’ve brought in three new defenders over the summer [Blazej Augustyn, Igor Rossi and Juwon Oshaniwa]. There are a lot of foreign boys and a lot of different languages. That was always going to play a part.
“We just need to get a settled back four. Once we get that communication and understanding of one another, performances like Saturday can hopefully happen week after week.
“We’d worked hard all week on defending. We knew Celtic like to get the ball wide and put crosses in the box, which could cause us problems. It was a good battling performance so we hope to keep up the good work and concede less goals from now on.”
The draw kept Hearts third in the league as a gruelling September draws to a close. “We knew this month was going to be really tough. We had Inverness away, then Aberdeen and a trip to Celtic,” recalled Alexander.
“We knew we had to get off to a good start in the league and we did, winning our first five games to get into a great position. We knew September would be hard but hopefully we’ve got a good month to look forward to now. We need to gather some points and get going in the table again. If the boys show the work ethic and effort they did on Saturday, then we’ll be fine.”