Decisive Daniel Stendel gradually cultivating the right environment for relegation-threatened Hearts to flourish
2019 ends with Tynecastle side five points adrift at the bottom, but German’s presence and playing style offers reason for optimism
A wretched 2019 ends in bittersweet fashion for Hearts.
They will go into the new year an alarming five points adrift at the foot of the Premiership and staring at the very real prospect of relegation. Any trepidation, however, is offset to some extent by a sense of hope, strengthened by a vibrant display in the year-ending 1-1 draw with Aberdeen, that things are about to get significantly better at Tynecastle in the early months of 2020.
The presence of Daniel Stendel is crucial to this notion, with a new style of football based on possession, passion and dynamism - of which we have seen glimpses over the past few games - imbuing supporters with a wave of new year optimism which belies the team’s precarious league position.
Crucially, Stendel is starting to draw performances out of a host of players who had previously been written off as dispensable duds by supporters. Nobody could have imagined at the start of December, for instance, that a starting XI containing Joel Pereira, Sean Clare, Clevid Dikamona, Oliver Bozanic, Andy Irving and Euan Henderson - and, just as notably, without big names like Glenn Whelan, Christophe Berra, Steven Naismith, John Souttar, Jamie Walker and Peter Haring - would be capable of producing arguably the team’s most progressive display of the calendar year.
But that was what transpired against Aberdeen at Tynecastle as a relatively youthful Hearts team conjured an exhilarating performance containing a combination of swagger, confidence, control and intensity not seen for some time. They passed out from the back, looked comfortable in possession, with players willing to take risks and play in tight areas when previously they would have been inhibited by the fear of making a mistake. The crowd responded throughout to this new-found bravery and verve in a team which had, for most of this hitherto wretched season, looked rigid, cautious and bereft of belief and spark.
Even when they went down to ten men, Hearts - led by the excellent Irving - still displayed enough composure and adventure to suggest that they might be capable of ekeing out a late winner against a Dons side who, for all their perceived limitations, will almost certainly prove strong enough to finish in the European places for the seventh year in succession. All that was missing was the cutting edge in the final third required to make their superiority count. The hope for Stendel is that Conor Washington, Steven Naismith and potentially a few new recruits will solve this problem after the winter break.
The performance against Aberdeen of players like Clare, Bozanic, Dikamona and Henderson - a quartet who had been written off by many supporters prior to Stendel’s arrival - suggests a) that the squad is not quite as dysfunctional as many have been fearing and b) that Stendel is capable of creating the right environment to get the best out of a previously struggling group of players.
Hibs striker Florian Kamberi said in a recent interview with the Evening News that a footballer “needs the circumstances to be right” in order to operate at their best. It is patently obvious to anyone who has followed Hearts’ fortunes over the past year and a bit that “the circumstances haven’t been right” for most members of this squad. The majority have been afflicted by long-term injury issues, which will have taken a toll on their fitness, sharpness and confidence levels.
In addition, the absence of key men at various points has led to extra reliance on those who would have been signed as squad players or project signings, causing them to be more heavily utilised than initially planned. All this exacerbated by a rancorous relationship between supporters and previous manager Craig Levein which had reached breaking point long before he was eventually sacked two months ago.
If a player of Glenn Whelan’s pedigree and experience can struggle to deal with life at bottom-six, Levein-era Hearts, it should come as no surprise that younger men like Clare, and Jake Mulraney, who have openly admitted that they have toiled with confidence and mindset issues while at Tynecastle, might wilt somewhat in such a grim situation. Prior to Stendel’s arrival, Aaron Hickey and Michael Smith had been the only two players able to produce anything close to their best form over a relatively sustained period of time.
The negative backdrop will have done no player any favours and had clearly contributed to the collective form loss which led to several previously respected footballers having their professionalism called into question by angry supporters. Although they have taken only one point from Stendel’s opening five games, the quality of the performance against Aberdeen, coming on the back of games against Celtic (first half-hour and last half-hour), Hamilton Accies (first half) and Hibs (second half) when they showed some notable promise, has done much to improve the vibe at Hearts going into the winter break.
Confidence levels of players like Clare, Ryotaro Meshino, Irving, Dikamona and Bozanic should be significantly enhanced by the way they signed off for the year, while the morale of the supporters has also clearly increased. Stendel himself admitted he took some comfort and reassurance from the new-found connection generated between the team and the supporters against Aberdeen. All of this should help ensure a more harmonious environment for the new manager and the players to operate within when they return to action against Airdrieonians in the Scottish Cup a fortnight on Saturday.
The prospect of some new signings in the weeks ahead should further raise morale levels. If Hearts can make some shrewd additions and work efficiently on the training ground to build on the glimpses of promise shown in Stendel’s first few weeks at the helm, it shouldn’t be beyond the bounds of possibility that they will prove capable of winning at least two more games than both Hamilton Accies and St Mirren over the closing 17 matches of the campaign in order to haul themselves to safety. They may be in the thick of an unwelcome relegation battle, but Hearts’ supporters can take solace from the fact they are being led into the fight by Stendel, a ruthless and decisive man who has shown enough so far to suggest he has the ability to turn the tide.