For weeks now, it has been looming large. Forget the League Cup quarter-final at Easter Road, as appetising as that is. The only game that matters for Hearts right now is this Saturday’s.
The visit of St Mirren is a potentially season-defining match for Gary Locke’s spirited young side. Given what victory or defeat could mean for both teams, it seems safe to say this is the biggest match anywhere in Scotland so far this season.
In every previous game this term, Hearts, in their current guise, could easily have been excused defeat, with the possible exception of the Hibs match on the second day of the season when there was a feeling that they needed to generate some early-season momentum in their battle to overcome that mammoth 15-point penalty.
Defeat in the derby, and the bottom may have fallen out of the survival bid before it had begun. In the event, that victory sparked a run of seven points from nine which, allied to the chronic struggles of others – namely St Mirren and Kilmarnock – meant they could afford to suffer three defeats in a row with minimal damage incurred.
Even on Saturday, at home to Dundee United, there was little expectation on Hearts to get a result. As long as they competed, a defeat by a vibrant opponent would not have been viewed as the end of the world. That isn’t the case this weekend, though. Probably for the first time this season, there is genuine pressure and expectation on Hearts to get a result.
Having given themselves a fighting chance by picking up eight points from an extremely arduous eight games so far, losing their first home game against a probable relegation rival would result in a sense of deflation around Tynecastle.
The prospect of back-to-back away games against Motherwell and Kilmarnock immediately after losing at home to the Buddies would hardly be treated with relish.
By contrast, victory on Saturday will be welcomed as merrily as any home win in recent memory by the Hearts support. Just like the win over Hibs, it could prove the catalyst for another surge of points towards positive equity in the table.
The aim just now is to get to zero, but it’s not about if they get to zero – they surely will at some point – it’s more about when. They could desperately do with reaching that landmark long before the likes of St Mirren and Kilmarnock get anywhere near the 15-point mark.
Hitting zero in, say, December, when all their main rivals have got close to 15 points, won’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, as they would effectively be starting their survival mission from scratch again with wearier legs than when they began the campaign back in July.
Hearts need to ensure they are always a good few steps ahead of the league’s strugglers in terms of point accumulation and that is why this weekend’s match is so important. So far they have made ground on three teams – Ross County are the other – but any advantage they have gained would swiftly be wiped out if they were to lose to St Mirren and subsequently endure another barren run.
While Hearts are favourites by virtue of the contrasting starts both sides have made to the season, St Mirren, it must be remembered, still possess the more proven campaigners. They are, by and large, still the same team that ripped apart a stronger Hearts side than the current one in the League Cup final back in March, and showed with their improved display against Aberdeen last night that they can’t be dismissed. Hearts will need to treat the game in the same manner as they have every other home match this season, because the fear of losing might just be enough to rouse the Buddies from their win-less slumber.
In their favour, Hearts have a manager who has struck the perfect tone throughout. Realistic enough to know that they are still bang up against it, Locke has a genuine belief in this squad. There has never been any defeatist talk, and his passion has been reflected in his players’ performances.
By contrast, Danny Lennon, pictured, last night apart, has been unable to get his St Mirren players to go the extra mile. Lennon is a good man and has proved in the past to be a good manager, but, in the current climate, I know which manager I’d rather have firing me up for such a cataclysmic match.
The fact we’re even talking about it in “must-win” terms is testament to Hearts’ spirited start. As harsh as it seems, all their efforts so far could count for nothing if they come up short on Saturday.