Until Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, John McGlynn’s reign at Hearts could barely have gone more serenely. He breezed through pre-season, with his new-look team winning three out of four away friendlies and only conceding one goal in the process. Then there was the season-opening clean-sheet win at home to St Johnstone which took Hearts top of the SPL for 24 hours.
In trying to follow the glorious ending to Paulo Sergio’s reign, McGlynn made as decent a fist of it as could reasonably be expected. This, however, raised expectations among fans and onlookers ahead of the weekend trip to Easter Road to the point where Hearts were odds-on shots with bookies by kick-off time. McGlynn’s men, however, were unable to oblige, prompting outbreaks of concern – and, in some quarters, criticism –among some Hearts fans. Yes, the Tynecastle side were toothless and uninspiring. But one bad day at the office shouldn’t necessarily mean the manager’s blueprint should instantly be ripped up. Things will evolve over time at Hearts, as they did under Paulo Sergio, who was slow to win over fans before eventually concluding his reign in the most sensational manner possible with the Scottish Cup final thrashing of Hibs.
Supporters had hoped their team could inflict further misery on their rivals at the weekend. However, on reflection, despite their encouraging start to the season, Hearts were mainly such red-hot favourites due to Hibs’ recent haplessness. As it transpired, the Easter Road men, without being spectacular, were a lot better than most people could have envisaged – Hearts players included. Complacency, as the manager suggested, certainly seemed an issue for Hearts. Hibs looked hungrier than their visitors, while new boys Paul Cairney, Alan Maybury – despite his error – and Gary Deegan gave them some much-needed bite and resolve.
It must be remembered that Hearts had two teenagers at full-back, who, understandably, looked nervy at times in their first Edinburgh derby, while Scott Robinson, despite being on the fringes of the team for a good few years now, is still finding his feet as a first-choice deep-lying central midfielder. Ian Black took two years to hit form for Hearts, so it is inevitable that youngsters will require time to find their way. As a result, patience is imperative if McGlynn is to have any hope of nurturing the kids. Having so far been unable to bring new players in, McGlynn is being asked to improvise. He needs to somehow find ways of plugging the gaps left by Rudi Skacel, Craig Beattie and Black, among others, and that will involve trying square pegs in round holes. With Skacel and Black gone, there is no natural creativity from central midfield, while there are no other established strikers available to partner John Sutton even if McGlynn wanted to play 4-4-2.
This is why he is persisting with Ryan McGowan as an attacking midfielder, much to the chagrin of some fans. The Aussie has been pigeon-holed by many as a right-back because he did so well there last year, but he was a midfielder in his younger days, albeit a bit deeper. Dave McPherson, the former Hearts defender who helped bring him to Hearts, told the Evening News last season that he saw him emerging long-term as an attacking midfielder.
McGowan may not be a nimble No. 10, while he doesn’t carry the same goal threat as Skacel, who played off the striker at the tail end of last season. However, he does have energy and presence and can provide thrust from the middle of the park in a similar manner to Steven Gerrard, who, despite not being the trickiest of players, was an effective No. 10 at Liverpool a few years back.
It often pays to have your best player in a prominent position, and McGowan certainly has the potential to become Hearts’ best. While he had a frustraing day against Hibs, he is still, like several teammates, finding his feet in a new position. He isn’t suddenly going to morph into Gerrard overnight. However, McGowan has shown in flashes – he set up two goals for Sutton in pre-season and got himself into dangerous positions against St Johnstone – that he can grow into the position. It may indeed be that he is better off at right-back in the long run, but McGlynn is entitled to more than just two league games – which have yielded four points, it must be remembered – to try out his ideas.
As a result of his sure-footed start, many seem to have forgotten just how big a task McGlynn had taken on. There needs to be an understanding that it will take time for everything to come together. In the grand scheme, a draw away to a fired-up Hibs team should hardly be the signal for wild panic to set in.