Preparations are under way at Riccarton as Hearts draw up plans to face Celtic without striker Juanma Delgado. His physical presence will be a huge miss, even if his petulance won’t. Tynecastle officials won’t appeal his red card for headbutting St Johnstone’s David Wotherspoon, meaning the Spaniard is suspended for the next two matches against Celtic and Dundee United.
Defender Callum Paterson was visibly irate at Juanma at McDiarmid Park. He was seen shoving his team-mate off the pitch and gesturing to indicate he had lost control after needlessly sticking the head on Wotherspoon. Paterson knows Hearts will miss an imposing figure like Juanma over the festive period but believes they can cope regardless.
Gavin Reilly, who has been almost a perennial substitute since arriving from Queen of the South in the summer, is eager to deputise in attack. It remains to be seen whether head coach Robbie Neilson deploys two forwards in a 4-4-2 formation or opts for a more conservative 4-2-3-1 against the Scottish Premiership champions. That may dictate whether Reilly gets a starting place or not.
“Juanma will be a big miss,” Paterson told the Evening News. “He’s a big presence for us up front and he’s scored a few goals. We’ve got the likes of Gavin who can come in, though. He’s a great player and was one of the top scorers in the Championship last year so he can definitely do a good job for us. Juanma being out is a big miss, but not too big.
“It’s good for us that Celtic are coming to Tynecastle on the back of a defeat [by Motherwell] but they are a quality side. I don’t expect losing will hinder them at all. We need to go out on Sunday and try to make our home a fortress. We know we’re good enough to battle with Celtic, but they are a quality team, they’ve got depth in their squad and they have some unbelievable players. You just have to deal with them and it comes but we want to go out and do a job.”
Paterson is probably the Hearts player who could empathise most with Juanma. His red card for lunging at Dominique Malonga last October was the lowest point of his career. Thankfully, it taught him a valuable lesson.
“I definitely learned from mine straight away. The challenge a few years ago was stupid and I knew that the instant I did it. I regretted it from day one. Different people react differently and hopefully Juanma learns from it straight away and doesn’t do it again. He’s probably over-passionate but you can’t take too much passion out of the game. It’s all about passion and if you aren’t passionate about your game then what’s the point in playing?”
The challenge for the Hearts management and coaching staff is how to channel Juanma’s passion and aggression for the benefit of the team. Nine goals in 21 appearances is a decent return, but he has accumulated the same number of yellow cards, plus a red. Patience has been wearing thin for some time and Paterson didn’t hold back when the red card was brandished against St Johnstone.
“I was just up there trying to get him off the pitch so we could reorganise. The red card had happened and there was nothing we could do about it. To reorganise the team, we had to get him off. It was his own fault to get himself in that situation but we needed to get him off so we could get things sorted out because St Johnstone play fast and quick football.
“He’s come from a different country and a different league. Maybe that’s how they play in other places but he knows himself he’s done something wrong if that’s what comes of it. He understands the situation so it’s his own fault.
“In the first 20 minutes, we were on fire and doing well. In the second half and towards the end of the game I don’t think we really deserved what we got. At the end of the day, we’ve worked hard so a point feels like a victory. McDiarmid Park is a hard place to go and St Johnstone are a great side who were playing European football this season. Taking a point is great.
“It wasn’t our best performance because we’ve played a lot better at other times this season. We’ve got Neil Alexander to thank for three or four great saves. If one of those goes in then it could be game over. A clean sheet is always good for the back four.
“St Johnstone are hot on our tails in the league. We had started the season well then slowed towards this month but we were looking forward to getting back on track and trying to widen that gap. Getting a point in Perth and keeping St Johnstone at bay is great for us.”
The clean sheet was Hearts’ eighth of the season and was especially pleasing for Paterson, who has worked to improve his own defensive attributes. “Everyone knows I’m an attacking player and I like to get forward. At the start of the season, I worked more on the defensive side of my game and not getting forward as much. I was focused on keeping clean sheets but now I’m getting a licence to attack with the ball.
“You need to play game after game after game, making mistakes and doing something good and then learning from what you’re doing. I feel a lot more comfortable now. I’ve played over 100 games for Hearts and most of them have been at right-back so I’ve got no excuses.”