Dylan McGowan believes it would have been unrealistic to have expected Hearts to have produced their excellent current form when they still had a chance of avoiding relegation in the first half of the season.
The Jambos are riding the crest of a wave, having made it 16 points from six games with their 5-0 demolition of Kilmarnock on Sunday, while only Celtic have collected more Premiership points than Gary Locke’s side over the last 14 games.
Their emergence as a force to be reckoned with since the turn of the year has left some fans wondering why they weren’t able to be more competitive in the first five months of the season when they toiled badly in their quest to overcome a 15-point penalty and stay in the top flight.
However, McGowan feels that it was only natural that such a young, untried side would struggle in the early part of the season and cites a host of factors in their dramatic improvement over the past four months.
He believes the pressure of battling a 15-point penalty from the first game of the season had a crippling effect on his ultra-young team’s chances, while other potential strugglers were able to play with freedom against Hearts as they were so far adrift at the bottom.
The boot is on the other foot now, with the Jambos unburdened having had their relegation confirmed last month, while all the other bottom-six sides – St Mirren apart – are feeling the heat in the battle to avoid the relegation play-off spot.
“You only have to look at the other teams in the bottom six just now to see how the pressure of battling to stay in the league can affect you,” McGowan told the Evening News. “We had that from the very first game of the season. Look at how hard Hibs are finding it just now. I don’t care how many or how few experienced players you’ve got, when you’re fighting against relegation, there’s a lot of pressure to deal with going into a football match.
“Look at Kilmarnock as well. They were playing without pressure when they came to Tynecastle in December and they beat us 4-0, and then when they’re playing with pressure we beat them 5-0. Since the pressure of fighting relegation has been taken off I think we’ve performed really well.”
Another factor in their impressive recent form has been the emergence of youngsters, like Billy King, Sam Nicholson and Dale Carrick, who all started the season lacking in the required physical attributes to be effective first-team players. McGowan has been thrilled by the emergence of Carrick in particular as it allowed Callum Paterson, who had been plugging a gap in attack in the first half of the season, to move to right-back, which in turn freed up the Aussie to move to his preferred position of centre-back.
The 22-year-old, by his own admission, never felt overly comfortable at right-back, but, with no recognised striker, he understood entirely why Locke had to try and improvise by playing players out of position. Carrick’s rise to prominence since January has afforded the team a sense of harmony that was missing in the early months of the campaign.
“Having the boys playing in their proper positions has helped a lot,” said McGowan. “Everyone’s a lot more comfortable. Callum’s done excellent at right-back and Speedy [Carrick] has been a revelation up front and others like Billy and Sam have come in as well, but whether or not everyone was ready for it at the start of the season is another matter.
“Speedy will say himself he’s had to work harder than ever this season. Callum might not be a natural striker, but he was certainly more physical than Speedy at the start of the season and he did a tremendous job up front, scoring his fair share of goals, so you can see why we played him there at the start. Since he’s been moved to right-back, he’s been brilliant. He’s a great help to have next to you. He’s really athletic, up and down all game. In fact he’s everything I wasn’t at right-back. That’s why I like him playing there.
“It’s good for me to get a run at centre-back. Me and Danny seem to be developing a good partnership together. It’s good to play in your regular position and hopefully my performances are coming along with that. It’s good that the fans can now judge me as a centre-back rather than a right-back. I’ve never been a right-back in my life.
“I’ve played a lot of games there through necessity but it was good to get that experience of playing in a different position under my belt. I can totally understand why the gaffer played me there earlier in the season because the younger boys weren’t ready to come in back then so I had to fill a gap.”
In addition to playing with reduced pressure and having extra balance in the team, McGowan also believes Hearts are now simply a more mature team as a result of learning plenty harsh lessons during the first half of the season.
“The experience we’ve gained over the course of the season has been the big thing,” he said. “We’ve suffered a lot of times but we’ve learned from our mistakes. We’re not making those mistakes any more and instead we’re capitalising on other teams’ mistakes.
“You can see how all the boys have learnt from the hard experiences we’ve gone through and everything’s coming to fruition now. You have to go through these tough times to get to where we are now. We’re by no means the finished article but we’re certainly getting some good results.
“We’ve done the league proud by sticking at it since we’ve been relegated and making sure we have a big say in who finishes in the play-offs. We’ve said all season that when it clicked we’d be a good team and I think it definitely clicked against Kilmarnock.”
With everything falling in to place for Hearts, McGowan is hoping that the squad and the coaching staff are allowed to remain intact and continue to grow together in the Championship next season. The defender is one of several players out of contract at the end of the season, while doubt continues to surround the future of Locke, whose deal also expires in the summer. Such issues can only be resolved once owner-in-waiting Ann Budge is able to take control of Hearts, a process which is expected to occur over the next month as the club exits administration.
The Aussie is adamant that Locke should be retained as manager. “I definitely want the gaffer to stay on,” he continued. “I said that even a few months ago when things weren’t going so well. He deserves another year with his own team and his own players and not working with his hands tied.
“You have to remember that this is his first full season in management. You can see in the last few months how much he’s learned. The changing room is behind him. You can see with the performances, even when things weren’t going well, you could never accuse us of chucking in the towel. It was just youth and inexperience that were causing us to make mistakes. Even before we were relegated we put in some good performances. He’s definitely the right man for the job.
“He’s got a great personality. He’s always upbeat and he keeps the boys upbeat. Right now we’re in good form but it was important that, when things weren’t going well, the gaffer was able to keep us together and make sure we stuck at it. I’m totally convinced he’s the man to take us forward.”
McGowan is philosophical over the enforced sense of limbo surrounding his own future. “There’s obviously uncertainty regarding the contract situation, but you can’t let yourself worry about it,” he said. “Until somebody comes and tells you whether or not you’re getting a new contract there’s no decision to make.
“I’ve enjoyed this season. It’s obviously been tough, but I’ve learned a lot and I think I’ve become a better player because of it. I’ve enjoyed working with these boys and with the manager, so even if I wasn’t offered a new contract I’d still advise anyone to try and keep this group together for the Championship next season.
“It’s not my decision to make, obviously, but it would be good if everybody got a chance to flourish in better circumstances next season.”