About ten minutes after the full-time whistle sounded on Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, Gary Locke emerged from the Tynecastle tunnel and marched triumphantly across the park to speak to the BT Sport team.
The broadcasters were at their pitchside berth in the corner of the ground between the Wheatfield and Gorgie Stands.
At that point, around 200 Hearts supporters remained in those two stands and, in an impromptu show of appreciation, when they realised their victorious manager was striding towards them, an almighty roar went up and all those who were previously trickling towards the exits, instead huddled round the area where Locke was speaking to the television camera before giving him another rousing reception as he set off back towards the Main Stand.
For Locke, who just a matter of minutes earlier had been bounding up the touchline beating his chest and punching the air like a maniac after Billy King had sealed an impressive derby win, it was a rare afternoon to savour in an endlessly-testing season.
For all the internet tittle-tattle and tweets and radio phone-in rants, it is in the stadium on a match-day where managers really get a feel for the supporters’ mood towards them. Just as David Moyes was given emphatic backing from the majority of Manchester United fans in defiance at the bampots who decided to try and publicly humiliate him with that ridiculous fly-by protest at the weekend, it has been evident, even in darker days this season, that Locke is still a far more popular figure at Tynecastle than online polls and such like would suggest.
There have been plenty defeats this season, and subsequently plenty opportunities for the Hearts support to vent any displeasure towards their manager. Thus far, however, the manager has never endured any sustained hostility from the crowd. It seems the rational majority understand the restraints he has been operating under this season and recognise that he is doing a good job in the circumstances.
Because the team have been losing games most weeks, some are reluctant to give him much credit, but there’s an argument, and it’s one I’d certainly back, that Locke and Billy Brown have actually had Hearts, who have been competitive in most games, punching above their weight this season.
Just to recap: Hearts have effectively been an Under-21 team this season, complemented by two senior outfield players in Jamie Hamill and Ryan Stevenson, whose main experience prior to arriving at Tynecastle amounted to playing for Kilmarnock and Ayr United respectively. They are both good, honest professionals but could never have envisaged that at this stage of their careers, they would find themselves cast as the on-field leaders of one of the biggest clubs in Scotland. This committed Ayrshire duo have shouldered the burden admirably, but, like Locke, they have been the subject of some flak from those who have failed to grasp the magnitude of what has been asked of everyone at Hearts this season.
After Sunday’s victory, there will doubtless have been some fans flippantly wondering why Hearts haven’t been able to produce such impressive performances in every other game this season. There are a multitude of reasons for this. For Sunday’s game, Locke and Brown will have prepared the team in the same manner and generally adopted similar tactics to those which yielded defeats against Dundee United and Kilmarnock in their previous two games.
The main difference on Sunday was that the team played with the intensity that a derby atmosphere usually brings out and also they didn’t make any costly individual mistakes, as they did in the previous two games. Despite the feelgood factor at Hearts after Sunday, there is a good chance the intensity levels will drop for tomorrow’s visit of Aberdeen and that Hearts will end up losing the game. And they might even get turned over at Partick Thistle at the weekend as well. If that happens, it will not be Locke and Brown’s fault. Hearts’ inconsistency is a symptom of having so many young players who are still trying to get to grips with the mental and physical demands of playing on a weekly basis for a club as big as Hearts in an ultra-competitive Scottish Premiership.
If a team like St Mirren, containing players like Marian Kello, Steven Thompson, Paul McGowan, Gary Teale, Conor Newton and Eric Djemba-Djemba, who have all played at a decent level, toil to win games, then what chance can a team have when they are predominantly made up of boys who have promise but are still learning the game and developing physically.
In the circumstances, Locke and every player at Hearts have done far better this season than they have been given credit for.