Unbeaten in 15 consecutive matches at Tynecastle, Hearts can be deemed to have restored their home ground’s reputation as something of a fortress this season.
Although this run incorporates two matches against lower-league opposition in their forgettable League Cup campaign under Ian Cathro last July, the overall picture – eight wins, seven draws and ten clean sheets in all competitions in Gorgie – is of a team at ease on their own patch. Despite winning only one of the four matches they hosted at Murrayfield last autumn while their new main stand was being erected, only Celtic and Aberdeen have collected more home Premiership points than Hearts this season.
While their good form in EH11 ought to have had them pushing for a Europa League place, Craig Levein’s team instead languish in sixth place, beneath Rangers, Hibs and Kilmarnock. The reason for this is that all three of those teams have performed strongly in their away matches, while Hearts haven’t. With just four wins and seven defeats in their 16 away matches this season, the Tynecastle side’s form on the road is on the same level as Hamilton Accies and Dundee, who sit ninth and tenth in the division respectively.
By contrast, second-place Rangers have won 11 and lost only two of their 15 away matches; Hibs have won seven and lost just two on their travels; and Kilmarnock have won five out of 14 away matches and also lost only two. Aberdeen, who have taken only four more home points than Hearts, are 14 points clear of the Edinburgh side largely because they have won twice as many away games.
A closer look at Hearts’ four away wins this season shows that three have come against sides in the Premiership’s bottom four, while the other came against Kilmarnock in August, at a time when the Rugby Park side were in the midst of a nine-game sequence without a victory under Lee McCulloch. There is precious little evidence of the away form getting any better either, with Hearts having won only one of their last nine matches – at Hamilton in January – and having scored in only four of them. While there have been credible goalless draws at Aberdeen and St Johnstone within this run, there have also been two lame defeats at Easter Road, a meek showing at Ibrox, an underwhelming display against bottom-of-the-table Ross County and a feeble first-half performance at Fir Park as they exited the Scottish Cup at the hands of Motherwell earlier this month. They head to Dundee on Sunday looking to halt a run of three consecutive away defeats.
This poor form on the road, of course, is nothing new for Hearts, certainly in the context of the current decade. Indeed, back in 2013, there was a similar article to this one in the Evening News highlighting a grim run of away results from the end of Jim Jefferies’ reign to Gary Locke’s time in charge. Neither Paulo Sergio or John McGlynn were able to find a remedy in between.
The away form appeared to have been rectified during the first 18 months of Robbie Neilson’s reign. After winning 14 of their 18 matches on the road during their blitz of the Championship in 2014/15, Neilson’s team won four of their first seven away matches upon returning to the top flight. Over the past two years, however, the travel sickness has returned, with Neilson, Cathro, caretaker Jon Daly and Levein having managed only eight wins between them in 39 away league matches. Within that period there have been 20 league defeats, as well as demoralising cup losses at St Johnstone, Hibs, Peterhead and the aforementioned one at Motherwell. In short, most of the damage to Hearts over the past couple of years has been sustained away from home.
While most teams are traditionally stronger at home than away, the Tynecastle side appear to be taking it to extremes. Although it is easy to see why a team of Hearts’ status and budget would be able to pick up a good haul of points at home, pinpointing the reasons for the away malaise is a trickier business.
In the case of the current team, one factor which probably counts against Hearts is a shortage of pace among their midfielders and forwards, which limits their counter-attacking threat. An alternative method of triumphing on the road would be to try and dominate possession, as Hibs tend to do, but Hearts are not particularly strong in central midfield and generally aren’t renowned for bossing games on the road. Hearts’ approach to away games has also been questioned, with the suggestion being that they can be overly cautious and don’t play with the same aggression and front-foot bravado they often display at Tynecastle. While there does appear to be a general lack of intensity about their play away from home, it is more likely to be a subconscious issue caused by not having the backing of a large home crowd rather than any instruction to be stand-offish.
Winning Premiership games away from home is no easy feat, but if Hearts are to start living up to expectations next season, they need to develop a more threatening aura about them on their travels. This should, in theory, be achieved by striking the right balance in central midfield and injecting some extra pace into attack – both of which can be done with the aid of shrewd summer transfer activity.