FIRST thing on Hearts players’ minds entering the dressing-room at full-time on Saturday was other teams’ scores.
Such is the feelgood factor amongst the Tynecastle squad that they win games and instantly seek out information on rival clubs. Which is only natural given their recent steady progress.
Celtic remain the benchmark in the Ladbrokes Premiership after their 5-1 romp against Rangers. Challenging their huge resources won’t be easy, but Hearts are at least making a fist of it so far.
They sit second in the league and could go top, for 24 hours at least, with victory this weekend at St Johnstone. Celtic have a game in hand but following that resounding win over third-placed Rangers, the Edinburgh club are their nearest rivals right now.
That in itself is a stark turnaround from just three weeks ago. Some Hearts supporters called for the sacking of head coach Robbie Neilson after a loss to Celtic and a draw at Aberdeen in their opening two league fixtures. Since then, a 5-1 win over Inverness, a 2-1 triumph at Partick and, on Saturday, a 3-1 victory over plucky Hamilton have changed perceptions considerably.
Players always believed a challenge near the top was possible. A section of fans took a little longer to be convinced, but the league table doesn’t lie.
“That’s just the confidence we’ve got amongst ourselves. We train every day and we see the quality in this squad. We believe we can make a real impact in the league,” said midfielder Don Cowie.
“Whether we can hit the heights of Celtic, time will tell. Right now, after a lot of negative press and stick at the start of the season, we’re second in the league. We believed in ourselves and I think we’re showing that by winning games we believe we should be winning. We think we can challenge anyone. We showed in the opening game of the season that we’re a match for Celtic.
“We’re a young team and we’re striving for consistency. We now have three wins on the bounce. Let’s see if we can make it four this week. We’ll re-evalute after that. St Johnstone is another tough game. We’ve struggled against them recently so that’s something we want to put right and get another three points. The confidence is really flowing in the dressing-room.”
When players returned there after coming from behind to beat Hamilton, they were eager to know if the victory had propelled them to second spot. “The players came in right after the game and wanted to know how everyone else had done,” revealed Neilson. “They want to find out where they are and how they’re doing against Aberdeen, Ross County, Rangers, Celtic. There is a real desire to try and get up the league.”
“We look at the team above, no point looking back. It’s early days, though,” admitted Cowie. “We’ve only played five league games. Come to me after 15 or 20 games, we’ll see where we are and if we’re mounting a serious challenge. We’re going about our business nicely just now and long may it continue.”
The weekend victory was anything but straightforward due to Hamilton’s resolve. The Lanarkshire club’s last win at Tynecastle was 39 years ago in October 1977, but Ali Crawford’s cushioned opening goal threatened to end that miserable sequence.
The little midfielder converted Grant Gillespie’s cross into the net past Jack Hamilton on 50 minutes. At that stage, after a dominant but wasteful first half, Hearts looked stumped. It required the introduction of Sam Nicholson to change the complexion of the match.
Nicholson crossed for Jamie Walker to head the equaliser on 69 minutes and then won the penalty from which Walker stroked Hearts into the lead. The decision was hotly disputed by Hamilton players, who surrounded referee Craig Thomson protesting that teenage debutant Shaun Want did not make contact in a sliding challenge on Nicholson.
“I don’t think it was a penalty,” complained Martin Canning, the Hamilton manager. “Shaun slid in and after it the boy [Nicholson] said to him and the referee that he was off balance and the only thing he could do was go down. It’s disappointing. I don’t criticise referees because it’s such a difficult job. It’s frustrating when it costs you in a game. Shaun slid to block the shot. I think Nicholson is at speed and he is off balance. You just hope these things even themselves out.”
As if to eliminate doubt, Nicholson nonchalantly clipped his own goal into the net from Robbie Muirhead’s cross in stoppage time. It was the most impressive of cameo roles by a player left out of the starting line-up from Hearts’ previous match at Firhill. His contribution was a huge factor in securing a third successive win.
“We said at half-time that we can’t win the game in the first half every week,” said Cowie. “We know we can change it if we need to because we have so much quality. Sam came on and made a huge impact on the game. We need to realise there are 20-odd players so, when you get your chance, you need to take it.
“Sam was unfortunate to drop out of the team that won at Partick. You have quality like Jamie coming in, and then Bjorn Johnsen and Robbie coming on and making an impact. In a few weeks, it might be me who’s dropping out, or Perry Kitchen or someone else. We’re striving to make an impact in the league and we’re going to need everyone.
“I’m happy to be fit and in the team at the moment. It’s been a real honour to wear the captain’s armband. It just shows the quality of our squad that Alim Ozturk finds himself out of the team right now. He was in the team of the season last year and, for me, he’s one of the best defenders in the league. It just shows how well Igor Rossi and John Souttar are doing.”