Anthony Brown: Long way to go for Hearts

Brad McKay cuts a miserable figure against Kilmarnock at full time. Pic: SNS
Brad McKay cuts a miserable figure against Kilmarnock at full time. Pic: SNS
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AT THE end of the first round of Scottish Premiership fixtures, it is even harder to make a case for Hearts avoiding relegation than it was at the start of the season. Back to square one – namely 15 points adrift at the foot of the table – the feeling was that they’d have had to have made some ground on at least one rival by this stage of the campaign if they were to have any chance of pulling off their mission improbable.

The only straw for Hearts to clutch at present is that there is still a long way to go in the season. League tables in May rarely resemble those of October. Football landscapes can change dramatically in weeks, never mind six months. There are still 27 games to go and 81 points to play for. Let’s assume that St Mirren, who look the most susceptible side to any potential Hearts upturn, will collect around a further 12 points over the remainder of the season, which is not an unreasonable guesstimate given their penchant for falling into lengthy ruts over the past year or so. That would mean Hearts would have to collect another 27 points in order to finish ahead of them, which amounts to them winning one in every third game.

Even that looks a tall order considering their inability to pick up points away from Tynecastle. Significantly, there is now a sense of deflation among the Hearts support. Back in the summer, it was widely felt that the siege mentality would offer their best hope of punching above their weight. The plan was that a good start would see things snowball. They got the good start, with seven points from their first four games, but everything seems to have 
fizzled out since then.

The players and supporters urgently need a lift. In the long run, that may come if the Foundation of Hearts can gain control. That would automatically restore the feelgood factor, although it remains to be seen if and when that will happen.

It is only natural that anyone connected with the club will be giving up hope as they glance at the league table. After all their efforts so far – and let’s not forget, it’s not effort that’s been lacking at Hearts this season – it must be demoralising that they remain 15 points adrift. With Gary Locke at the helm, there is no chance of them throwing in the towel, though.

They need to look for sources of optimism to cling to as winter sets in. They could muse that, had they not fallen flat against St Mirren – for all their struggles this season, it is not unreasonable to assume that Hearts could beat the Buddies on their day – they might have been only nine points adrift of safety. It’s all ifs and buts, of course, but looking at it in that light would suggest that if they can snap out of their slump, they could yet make things competitive.

They could also set themselves the target of, say, getting within ten points of a team by the turn of the year. Or getting within five points of a rival by the time of the split. Either scenario would give them a fighting chance and at least keep the supporters interested, which is crucial given the ongoing need for income and pledges to the Foundation.

The fundamental problem for Hearts, aside from not having a goalscorer, is that they lack players with experience of winning football matches in the first team. That ruthlessness will only come with time, which is something Hearts don’t have on their side. They have shown so far that they are not a 
hapless team in terms of 
football ability; they are simply lacking the savvy to make the right decisions at nitty-gritty stages in matches.

If they can somehow reacquaint themselves with that winning feeling which they briefly enjoyed back in August, it would remind them what is required to actually see out a victory. With that in mind, winning Wednesday’s League Cup quarter-final away to Hibs would be just what the doctor ordered. Without the pressure of battling for league points, a derby in which they are widely expected to lose might just be the game to bring out the best in Hearts.

For all that Hibs have the better players, the one thing the Hearts youngsters have is an in-built desire not to lose to their bitter rivals, with their Under-20s boasting a fine derby record in recent seasons. Hearts showed in August that they do have the ability to rise to the occasion, and although they have struggled on the road, they can comfort themselves with the knowledge that, for all Hibs have had a decent start to the season, Easter Road remains a long way from being a fortress.

If nothing else, victory on Wednesday, by hook or by crook, would at least ensure beleaguered Jambos have the prospect of a cup semi-final to help them through what is in danger of becoming a long, harsh winter.