Confounding sceptics is all part of the fun at Hearts right now as players respond to their interim management team of Jon Daly, Austin MacPhee and Liam Fox.
Four points from three difficult away fixtures is a welcome start to the Ladbrokes Premiership campaign, particularly after many doomed the Edinburgh club to failure.
They sacked head coach Ian Cathro just days before the opening game at Celtic Park and entered the season in turmoil after being ousted from the Betfred Cup. Celtic was the first of four away games whilst Tynecastle’s new main stand is completed, although an unforeseen delay means it will now be November before Hearts return to their modernised spiritual home.
The daunting start, with two of their opening three matches away to Celtic and Rangers, had the entire Premiership taking an attitude of “rather them than us”. Yet players and temporary coaches alike have reacted positively.
They overcame a 4-1 loss at Celtic to beat Kilmarnock 1-0 at Rugby Park and record a second consecutive clean sheet in Saturday’s goalless draw at Ibrox. No-one at Riccarton is in a position to feel smug yet but there is a sense that they have all enjoyed proving their point.
“Possibly they are proving people wrong. I think it showed everyone who was there on Saturday that we can do the ugly side of the game,” Daly, officially Hearts Under-20 coach, told the Evening News. “We can do the hard yards and put in the work rate that’s needed off the ball to make sure you stop good teams getting chances.
“It always helps when you get points on the board. Morale in the camp can lift and I think the players deserve the four points they’ve got for the way they’ve worked. We’re really happy with them and the team is in a good place right now. We need to continue that into this weekend at Motherwell.
“We’ve just changed a few things to try and lift them and I think we’ve got a response. Points can change the mood very quickly. They’re a very resilient group, as I think most footballers are. People losing their jobs is part of football and it’s something players have to deal with a lot more in the modern era.”
That “ugly side”, as Daly terms it, is the doggedness which blanked out both Rangers and Kilmarnock. Much of it is down to Jack Hamilton’s assured goalkeeping but the management team’s careful ly considered organisation and planning is also a factor.
“Kenny Miller had one decent chance which Jack saved well. Apart from that, I don’t think Jack had an awful lot to do. His handling was good from crosses,” continued Daly.
“We forced Rangers into areas we wanted to force them into. We’d looked at their team and we knew if we forced them down the sides and they put crosses into the box, we have John Souttar and Christophe Berra against Alfredo Morelos. He’s not the type of striker who wants to go and challenge in the air.
“We felt if we made Rangers go down the sides, we could control the situation. It might have looked at times that we were under pressure but I think we were controlled. We were happy they went out wide rather than cutting us open down the middle.”
Daly, MacPhee and Fox have also been relentless in their attempts to improve Hearts’ fitness levels since taking charge three weeks ago.
“I wasn’t at the Dunfermline game [when Hearts’ Betfred Cup exit was confirmed] because I was watching Andy Irving playing on loan at Berwick. A lot of the feedback was that the players didn’t work hard enough and didn’t do enough,” explained Daly.
“We won’t accept anything less than 100 per cent off the ball and 100 per cent work rate. The players know that. We spoke to them the first day and said that’s the minimum we expect. As a team, I think we need to be fitter. We’re still a bit off where I would like the players to be in terms of fitness. Once we get to that level, we’ll be able to do the hard work and we’ll also be able to go and play.
“I think on Saturday at Ibrox that just let us down. When we won the ball back in good areas of the park, our passing let us down. The players are an honest group and I think they’d be the first to say that, on the ball, we didn’t do enough on Saturday.”
Four points from nine would become seven from 12 with victory at Fir Park this weekend. It is Hearts’ last away fixture before a “home” match with Aberdeen, to be staged at Murrayfield. “It’s away from home again, so it’s tough,” said Daly.
“We will set up the team looking to try and win the game by exploiting areas where we feel we can get at Motherwell. We’ll let the players know what needs to be done.
“We also need to be wary of them because they’ll be quite buoyant after a 2-0 win over Ross County at the weekend. It’s a difficult game but one we feel we’re more than capable of getting three points from.
“If we can get seven points from 12, then it’s a fantastic start. We can’t just assume we’re going to get three points at Fir Park. We will need to put the same effort into this game as we did the other three. Hopefully we will have the quality on the ball to give ourselves chances of scoring goals.”
Some of that quality could come from emerging winger Lewis Moore, who is back training after injury. The 19-year-old has started only two matches at first-team level for Hearts but is highly regarded by Daly after the pair worked together at youth level. He is in contention for a starting place in Lanarkshire.
“Lewis is back in training so he’s back in the fold for the weekend, which is a positive for us,” said Daly. “He’s done really well and he’s a player myself and Liam know really well. We’ve worked with him at under-20 level for a couple of years now and we know what he offers.
“The way we want the team to play, he fits the mould so we’re delighted to have him back in contention. He did well against Celtic in the first game and handled the occasion really well. It’s a positive for us to have him back and fighting to get into the team.”
Moore’s progress from youth team to first team is exactly how Hearts want their academy system to work. Sam Nicholson’s summer departure to America means a promising youngster gets his chance.
“There are a few academy players in and around the first team that we’re well aware of. We know their strengths and weaknesses. They probably aren’t going to play in every game for you but you know the games they can be effective in and make an impact. That can help their confidence as well. When the team is performing well and getting results, it’s easier to throw in a couple of younger boys.”