When newly-promoted Hearts finished within six points of second-placed Aberdeen last season, the general consensus was that the Edinburgh side would be equipped to mount an even stronger challenge to the Dons this term.
Lending further credence to this notion was the fact Hearts won the last three competitive meetings between the teams in the 2015/16 campaign. For much of this term, it looked like the Tynecastle side were ready to at least take the battle for second place to the wire. In mid-October, Hearts were a point behind Aberdeen. By the start of December, the Tynecastle side had climbed to second place, two points clear of the Dons, who had two games in hand.
No-one could have envisaged at that point that Hearts would be heading for Pittodrie a whopping 14 points adrift of Aberdeen with two months of the season still to play. Yet that is the scenario after a three-and-a-half-month window in which the two sides have experienced significantly contrasting fortunes.
Hearts, during a turbulent period of transition following a major overhaul of the coaching and playing staff, have won only four of their past 13 Premiership games, while Aberdeen have found their stride and won ten of their past 15 to storm clear of both Rangers and the Jambos in the race for second. In the circumstances, a Saturday lunchtime win in the Granite City is unlikely to give Hearts any realistic chance of hauling themselves back into contention for the runner-up spot behind Celtic. However, it would at least offer their supporters hope that Ian Cathro’s work-in-progress team will have a genuine chance of competing with the Dons next season.
“I think the gap is too big at the moment but if Hearts can go to Pittodrie and win it sets the standard for next season,” said former Hearts defender Paul Ritchie. “It’s going to be a difficult game because Derek McInnes has got Aberdeen flying at the moment. Aberdeen are the benchmark for Hearts. They’ve shown the consistency levels that are required to be second just now. Celtic are miles ahead of everybody else but what Derek has shown at Aberdeen is that with hard work and a bit of quality, you can do exceptionally well in this league. That’s what Ian and Hearts need to aspire to.”
Aberdeen are going for a record-equalling ninth consecutive home win in the league, while Hearts have won only one of their last nine away league games. The Edinburgh side can at least draw some encouragement from the fact they have lost only four of their last 22 meetings with Aberdeen and have been defeated in only one of their last five visits to Pittodrie. They are also buoyed by last Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of Hamilton Accies.
“The Hamilton game was a great reaction following a very disappointing few weeks for the club,” said Ritchie, a Scottish Cup winner with the Jambos in 1998. “But no disrespect to Hamilton – Aberdeen away is a much more difficult game. It would be a real statement if we could win up there. Once again, it’s a test of character for the players. A few of the new players were called out with regards to their commitment level and contribution to the Hibs games, so this is a chance to go back out in a big game and show that they are deserving of playing for Hearts.”
While Ritchie is disappointed by the way things have unravelled for the club he supports in recent months, he retains full faith in Cathro’s ability to lead them to new heights next season. “I would hope that Hearts would be in a position to be challenging for second next season,” said the 41-year-old former Scotland internationalist. “For a club of Hearts’ size, especially with the new stand going up, finishing in the top two or three places in the Premiership is a must next season. The club is going in the right direction but the last three or four months have been a bit of a blip. I still see us being on an upward trend as a club and a full pre-season will give Ian a real opportunity to bed in his ideas.
“He’s brought in a lot of new players in January but it’s not gone the way he or the Hearts fans would have liked in the short term. He is clearly trying to install a method of play that makes us a more entertaining team and a winning football team, but that takes time. It will be next season before we see the real influence Ian can have.
“When Hearts were second earlier in the season, they knew how to win games. At the start of the season – and this is meant as no disrespect to Robbie Neilson – they weren’t great to watch, but they were getting results. They were pretty poor away from home, but they knew how to win games at home and I think they’ve lost that during the transitional period with all the new guys coming. You need to find a balance. Everybody wants their team to play well but ultimately you need to win games. We’ll get there but it will take time.”