For all that Hearts have endured a tough time of it in the two months prior to that stunning win in Aberdeen on Saturday, manager Gary Locke would surely have been grateful had he been offered, at the start of the season, 11 points by the 13-game mark.
That is, incidentally, more than Gretna had taken going into the last day of the 2007-08 season. The Tynecastle side may remain up against it in their bid to stay afloat in the Scottish Premiership but, back in those harrowing summer days when they were first ravaged by administration, the prospect of Locke’s young team proving totally out of their depth in Scotland’s top flight was deemed a very real one in some quarters.
Yet, having been written off time and time again over the past few months, here they are still in with a shout of avoiding bottom spot come May. At the 13-game point last season, Hearts, with Marius Zaliukas, Andy Webster, Ryan McGowan, John Sutton et al, were only three points better off than the current team are now. The season before, Paulo Sergio’s Scottish Cup-winning vintage, containing the likes of Rudi Skacel and Ian Black, were only seven points better off than Locke’s strikerless young team.
By this stage of the 2009-10 season, Csaba Laszlo’s group, containing Lee Wallace, Jose Goncalves, Andrew Driver and Michael Stewart, had only fared two points better than today’s side. Of those three seasons, only last term would a 15-point deduction have resulted in Hearts finishing bottom.
Locke’s team have already accumulated more points than Ross County and Kilmarnock and have barely been outscored by the likes of St Mirren and Partick. All four of these sides will remain wary of any sustained upturn from Tynecastle. Currently four points from zero, a Hearts victory at home to County next time out will really have alarm bells ringing across the lower echelons of the division. Passing the zero-point mark, which could feasibly happen at Tannadice in early December, will have a significant galvanising effect on everyone at Tynecastle.
Contrast the renewed sense of optimism such a scenario would bring with the gloom currently pervading Rugby Park, and it’s not beyond possibility that Hearts and Kilmarnock could be within a few points of each other by the time the league’s bottom two sides meet for the third time this season in Ayrshire in late March.
The brighter outlook at Tynecastle is all a far cry from a fortnight ago when this column was musing as to how Hearts could find any hope to cling to.
A dismal run of one point from eight games in between the two rousing victories over Aberdeen looked like signalling the end of Hearts’ survival bid; instead that barren period could yet prove to be a positive.
Throughout the slump, Locke, his assistant Billy Brown and captain Danny Wilson had all claimed that they always knew Hearts, with so little experience in their ranks, would have to endure a difficult period like that at some stage. They couldn’t have bargained on the learning curve being quite as steep as it was, though.
During those two winless months, the Hearts players endured all sorts of difficult experiences that many will never have felt before in the professional game. Despite rarely being outclassed, they found that, however well they played, they invariably went home with no points. They had to contend with being victims of several dubious refereeing decisions as well as the pain of twice squandering potential away victories at Motherwell and Ross County in the closing stages of matches. Some players also had to get to grips with the mental test of being dropped, rested, substituted or criticised by frustrated supporters. As Locke knows from his time coming through the ranks at Hearts 20 years ago, such setbacks are all part of becoming a professional footballer with the resilience to carve a long-term career in the game.
The manager will hope his young players will have learned lessons from those difficult times and are now better equipped to deal with such situations through the rest of the campaign. Early signs are promising. At Easter Road, in the League Cup, and at Pittodrie on Saturday, they stood firm in the face of late examinations from their hosts, unlike in previous away games. As they have found out the hard way, the ability to grind games out in the Scottish Premiership often counts for more than being able to pass the ball round teams Under-20-style.
If they can somehow replicate the spirit of those stirring away victories in home matches, Hearts will really be back in business. The likes of St Mirren and St Johnstone have both come to Tynecastle and made merry in recent matches. If this unlikely survival bid is to remain on course, it’s imperative that struggling Ross County are not allowed to do the same a week on Saturday.