The sense of deflation has eased and the Hearts players are now ready to get back on the horse.
Last weekend’s 3-2 defeat at home to Falkirk jarred with Jambos everywhere as they’d forgotten what it felt like to lose a league game, something they hadn’t previously done since May 7, 2014 when Partick Thistle won 4-2 at Tynecastle in Hearts’ penultimate game as a Premiership team last season.
Although dreams of an unbeaten surge through an entire Championship campaign have now been dashed, Hearts’ focus on winning the title remains as strong as ever. “There was always a part of you that hoped we could go through the whole season unbeaten, but, in our heads, that was never the first thought,” said Callum Paterson, the Hearts right-back.
“The priority for us is to win the league and get back to the Premiership. It was a shock result, but I wouldn’t call it a wake-up call. I have said before we were never going to go 100 games unbeaten. The run was always going to come to an end.”
The main disappointment for Paterson was that Hearts – swashbuckling and gutsy for most of the season so far – surrendered their unbeaten record in relatively meek fashion. “The manner of the defeat was worse than actually losing our unbeaten record,” he said. “If we’d played well and lost, it wouldn’t have felt as bad, but it’s disappointing that we didn’t play well. It was very frustrating. It was a poor performance from everybody, myself included, and it showed in the result.
“Everyone was a bit down on Sunday when we came in for our recovery, but that’s in the past now – we can’t change what happened last weekend.”
Paterson had already experienced his fair share of defeats in previous seasons at Hearts, but last weekend was the first time head coach Robbie Neilson and his raft of recruits had sampled a league loss. “Last season we got used to the feeling of losing, but this team together hadn’t lost, so it was a strange feeling for us,” he said. “In saying that, losing always hurts the same at any stage of a season – nobody likes to get beat. In some ways, last week’s game showed how well we’ve done to go unbeaten for so long because Falkirk showed how good a team they are. They played really well but they’re not the only good team in this league capable of causing us problems.”
Two of those teams are Rangers and Hibs, who are 13 and 15 points behind Hearts respectively. The Ibrox side have a game in hand and still have to face the Jambos twice. However, with Rangers on cup duty over the next two weekends, Hearts have a chance to reassert their authority by winning their next two games and opening up a 19-point advantage. “We’re not looking over our shoulders at all,” said Paterson. “The whole focus is on ourselves. We want to go to Alloa and hopefully increase the gap at the weekend.”
Hearts return to Recreation Park and its infamous plastic surface three and a half months after requiring a late Adam Eckersley goal to secure a 1-0 victory over Alloa. Paterson knows this weekend’s match represents a test of character as Hearts attempt to get back on track. “We had to rely on our left-back scoring a dodgy free-kick at the end the last time, so hopefully we can go there and get the job done and not have to rely on something like that this time,” he said. “It won’t be easy, though. We’ll need to play a lot better than we did last weekend.”
An increased array of fit attacking options should aid Hearts’ cause on that front. Paterson was called upon to fill in as a striker for the win at Cowdenbeath last month and the abandoned fixture at Ibrox a fortnight ago. However, with Osman Sow, Dale Carrick and Soufian El Hassnaoui feeling their way back to fitness and James Keatings, Gary Oliver and Genero Zeefuik also in the mix, Paterson hopes to be left to focus on developing as a rampaging right-back. “I’m happy the strikers are back,” he said. “I was happy to play up front for the team and I scored a good goal at Cowdenbeath, but I’m looking to stay at right-back and get some more assists on the board. It’s fun to play a different position now and again if you’re comfortable there, so I just take it in my stride if I’m asked to play there. It’s another string to my bow.”
Paterson has been happy with his recent form after the opening couple of months of his season were interrupted by injury and suspension. “Altogether I feel my form’s been alright,” he said. “There have been a couple of dodgy games, like the one last weekend, but hopefully I can put that behind me.”
After earning his maiden call-up to the Scotland squad for the November double-header against Republic of Ireland and England, Paterson’s next opportunity to be involved with the national team comes in March when Gordon Strachan’s side host Northern Ireland in a friendly and then Gibraltar in a Euro 2016 qualifier. However, the 20-year-old is adamant that his full focus is on taking Hearts back to the Premiership.
“The Scotland situation’s at the back of mind for now,” he said. “It would be brilliant even to get called up for another friendly this year, but my main focus is on Hearts, picking up points, scoring goals and winning the league. If another Scotland call comes, it’s a bonus. I know when the Scotland fixtures are, but I’m just trying to keep my feet on the ground.”