Two months ago today, on October 20, Hearts held on for a well-deserved 2-1 victory over Aberdeen to move three points clear at the top of the Premiership and ten ahead of the floundering Pittodrie side.
Even allowing for the fact the Tynecastle side had just seen John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu join captain Christophe Berra on the long-term injury list, nobody leaving Gorgie that bright autumnal afternoon could have predicted that the Dons would be sitting three points above the Edinburgh team by the time they prepared to reconvene in the Granite City the weekend before Christmas.
Although Hearts were clinging on at times in the second half of that match after Gary Mackay-Steven had pulled one back with a penalty, they were well worthy of a victory achieved by first-half goals from Arnaud Djoum and Steven Naismith. The home support bounded out of Tynecastle convinced their depleted team – also without Peter Haring and Michael Smith that day – could overcome any kind of adversity. The fact they proceeded to defeat Dundee 3-0 just days later to stretch their lead at the top of the table to six points, and move a whopping 13 ahead of seventh-place Aberdeen, lent further credence to the notion that it would be rampant Hearts, as opposed to Derek McInnes’s struggling team, who would be offering the strongest challenge this season to title favourites Celtic.
Since the last weekend in October, however, the two teams have been moving in totally contrasting directions, encapsulating the wildly fluctuating, unpredictable nature of this remarkable Scottish Premiership campaign. On Tuesday, Aberdeen, who had looked so vulnerable for much of that defeat at Tynecastle, beat Dundee 5-1 to move three points clear of Hearts and haul themselves right into the tightly-congested mix at the very top of the table. From looking like bottom-six contenders just two months ago, they are now being spoken about once more, albeit tentatively, as potential title candidates. Hearts, by contrast, have gone from being runaway leaders at the end of October to potentially spending Christmas Day in the bottom six, depending on results this weekend.
Of course, all of this must be couched by the fact that Hearts and Aberdeen are only three points apart, and a win for the visitors at Pittodrie on Saturday would have another major mood-altering effect on supporters of both teams. Nonetheless, it is worth looking at how the transformation in the two clubs’ seasons has unfolded, almost simultaneously.
• Semi-final turning point
The change in the narrative for both Hearts and Aberdeen can be traced back to Sunday, October 28, when the two teams had contrasting fortunes in their Betfred Cup semi-finals. Hearts, who had won eight of their ten Premiership matches up to that point, went into their BT Murrayfield showdown with Celtic full of optimism and belief, as highlighted by a turnout of almost 30,000 Jambos at the national rugby stadium. Just minutes into the match, however, the key moment in Hearts’ season arrived when their talisman, top scorer and deputy captain Naismith pulled up with a knee injury and had to be substituted. The huge Hearts support were instantly deflated, the team subsequently lacked leadership and threat, and Celtic ultimately ran out convincing 3-0 winners. A few hours later, along the M8 at Hampden, Aberdeen, who had won only three of their nine league matches up to that point, went into their semi-final as underdogs against a Rangers side who had won six of their previous seven domestic matches. Against the odds, and with a support significantly outnumbered by their rivals, McInnes’s team dug deep to eke out a 1-0 victory courtesy of a late header from teenage midfielder Lewis Ferguson.
• Beleaguered Hearts
That semi-final defeat for Hearts set in motion a run of seven consecutive matches without a win and five in a row without a goal as the absence of Naismith, on top of the other injuries, suddenly started taking a toll. Although they stopped the rot with a hard-fought win against Motherwell in their last home match, last Friday’s 5-0 capitulation at Livingston killed off any talk of a resurgence in the most emphatic fashion imaginable. The statistics show that they have won only one of their past nine matches in all competitions and have taken a paltry five points from a possible 24. Whereas the team had a relatively settled core earlier in the season, it is now subject to several changes on a game-to-game basis as a result of injuries, loss of form and tactical tweaks. The current situation in central defence gives an indication of the chaos which has engulfed Hearts in recent months, with injuries to Souttar, Jimmy Dunne and Clevid Dikamona leaving Berra, who has only recently returned from a four-month injury lay-off of his own, as the only fully-fit centre-back now available to Craig Levein.
• Dandy Dons
In stark contrast to Hearts, Aberdeen are motoring along nicely with a relatively settled team. The semi-final victory over Rangers has a had a clear and galvanising effect. Including that Hampden triumph, they have won eight of their past 11 matches in all competitions and surged from the bottom six into the top four by collecting 21 points from a possible 27.
Factors in Aberdeen’s slow start to the season were the obvious impact of adapting to life without last season’s playmaker, Kenny McLean, an early-season injury to their best centre-back, Scott McKenna, and the lack of impact from senior strikers James Wilson, Stevie May and Sam Cosgrove. Since the semi-final, however, confidence has started coursing through the team and, although they are not always particularly easy on the eye, they have rediscovered the knack of winning consistently which served them so well on their way to finishing second in each of the previous four seasons. McKenna, who missed the trip to Tynecastle through suspension, has been a key performer in a solid and fairly settled backline. An injury to his defensive partner, Mikey Devlin, in recent weeks has been largely offset by the fine form of his deputy, Andrew Considine. As the campaign has progressed 19-year-old Ferguson has grown into one of the main men alongside Graeme Shinnie in the engine room, while, the previously-maligned duo of May and Cosgrove have finally started to show signs of life, easing the attacking burden on Niall McGinn and talisman Gary-Mackay Steven.
In trying to bounce back from last Friday’s humbling at Livingston, Hearts will clearly face a formidable test against a team currently enjoying a similar sense of harmony to the one they themselves had in those intoxicating early months of the season when anything seemed possible.