PAUL HEFFERNAN spearheads a Kilmarnock side posing clear and present danger to Hearts. The Dubliner has struck nine goals in 12 games in a team which has lost just once in the last five meetings with tomorrow’s opponents.
Visiting Tynecastle won’t harbour the same trepidation for the Ayrshire club as it does many others in the SPL. From two outings there last season, they recorded two victories, scoring five goals and conceding none in the process. With Heffernan now on board, Kilmarnock are arguably more potent in attack. Hearts remain unwilling to speak publicly after imposing a blackout on all media outlets, yet tomorrow their players will be pre-occupied trying to stifle Heffernan. He is expected to feature as a lone striker having performed the role to devastating effect this season. Now 29, his career history details a reliable goals-to-games record at a host of different clubs. The most prosperous periods came at Doncaster Rovers and Notts County. Heffernan managed 53 goals in 160 appearances during five years with Doncaster, and 37 in 114 for County. Roughly, his stats equate to one goal every three games. Kilmarnock fans, thus far, have witnessed even more remarkable consistency levels. Heffernan is Rugby Park’s new darling following the departures of Kevin Kyle and Conor Sammon in recent years, bringing no end of satisfaction to the management team.
“The manager knew him better than me so he brought him in during the summer,” explained Jimmy Nicholl, assistant to Kenny Shiels. “He’s a Dublin lad, a typical Irish boy who always has a bit of craic about him. He comes in and trains hard, then you see a bit of quality about him in games. We noticed it right away in pre-season. The pleasing thing is he’s one of those lads who, if he’s up front on his own, he isn’t bothered. He’s not one of these strikers who thinks ‘I need a foil, someone to bounce off’. He will run into corners and, even though he might have two centre-backs marking him, he still manages to find half a yard to get in behind them. He’s not lightning-quick, he’s just clever in his movement and intelligent at beating the offside trap. He’s a clever footballer who knows where the back of the net is. I’ve a hell of a lot of time for him.”
That part about sneakily peeling off defenders might be worthy of note if you happen to be Marius Zaliukas. The Lithuanian has drifted off to sleep and been punished on several occasions recently. Neither he nor Andy Webster can afford to lose track of Heffernan. “He’s proved already what a good buy he’s been for Killie,” continued Nicholl. “I look at Heffernan and think ‘that lad’s a real finisher’. If he gets on the end of crosses and chances he will put them away. Then we don’t give him enough opportunities. That’s how you end up drawing and losing games.”
Tomorrow’s encounter pits two of Hearts’ summer signings, Mehdi Taouil and Jamie Hamill, against their former club. Their presence may act as a source of inspiration to Kilmarnock, according to Nicholl.
“Mehdi and Jamie will be thinking they’ve moved to a big club and a good team. Our lads are just trying their best to emulate what they did last year with the football and the recognition Kilmarnock got. Jamie and Mehdi were very much part of that. I think the boys that were here last year – like Mani Pascali, Garry Hay, James Fowler and Liam Kelly – will be turning round and saying to them ‘listen lads, you were good players but we’re doing alright’.
“If it was me I would have that wee edge about myself. Our boys will be wanting to prove they can repeat what they did last year. That will be their motivation, to say that we’ve lost four or five good players, including people like Craigy Bryson and Conor Sammon, but we’re still not bad.”
Despite a public spat with the Hearts manager Paulo Sergio over team selection for last month’s League Cup ties – an argument which Nicholl stresses was blown out of proportion – the Irishman is not without compliments when asked about the opposition. “I enjoyed Hearts against Rangers, I enjoyed the way Hearts went about their business,” he said. “They will be disappointed with the goals they conceded, which is always the case unless someone hits a wonder goal from 30 yards. Defenders will always make mistakes which lead to goals. What we have to work out is how they are going to line up against us because everybody plays differently against the Old Firm. If our boys are on their game, they will get a bit of joy. Not just at Hearts but at all grounds. You always believe you have enough in your team to cause the opposition problems. It’s always difficult going to Tynecastle. It’s just as hard getting a result at Hearts as getting a point against Celtic.”
That reference prompts a shudder from Nicholl. Surrendering a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3 with Celtic gave both him and Shiels palpitations in the technical area and exemplified the erratic defending which has hindered Kilmarnock this season. Then came a much more stable 0-0 draw at second-top Motherwell last weekend. Hearts will be aiming to capitalise should any uncertainty arise tomorrow.
“The only thing we can do now is keep clean sheets and get a win,” said Nicholl. “We were delighted with the boys at half-time against Celtic, of course. Then we were really disappointed at the end. Going into the Motherwell game, I thought ‘a clean sheet and a wee 1-0 win will do us’. We managed the first part, which is good because we’ve struggled to stop conceding goals. I’m always confident of doing something because of the way we pass the ball about and the chances we create. But I still have my heart in my mouth when we’re defending.”