Esmael Goncalves issues a very bullish retort when asked about Hearts’ malaise. He doesn’t offer excuses, recognising that he and his colleagues are underperforming and deserve the criticism from fans. His instinctive reaction is to fight back.
A two-week international break gives the Portuguese forward and his team-mates a long time to reflect on three consecutive defeats. Perhaps as much as results, their performances against Hibs, Rangers and Kilmarnock have caused growing concern amongst supporters.
Hearts sit just inside the Ladbrokes Premiership’s top six due to their superior goal difference over St Johnstone. They are ten points behind their Capital rivals. On the surface, it is nothing to panic unduly about given they have played all 13 league games to date away from Tynecastle while the ground is rebuilt.
However, the past three matches in particular have exposed the squad’s lack of quality. Performance levels dropped after an apparent steadying in the immediate aftermath of Craig Levein’s return as manager. Levein is attempting to remedy the situation but can’t reshape his squad until the January transfer window opens.
Goncalves is realistic about the situation whilst adamant Hearts’ season has yet to properly begin. He feels returning to the redeveloped Tynecastle Park a week on Sunday against Partick Thistle can spark a renaissance and appease the disgruntled Gorgie public.
“Nothing is finished,” he said defiantly. “We are a big club and we have massive support from our fans. I think it’s early. The season is far from being finished. I think we are just starting now. When we go back to our home, we will just be starting the season from that point.
“Nothing is going right at the moment. We are training hard and giving everything on the pitch. I think playing at Tynecastle can help us a lot, also with our fans there with us.”
That can work in a negative fashion when supporters are unhappy. Sunday’s defeat against Kilmarnock witnessed several episodes of jeering from the stands at BT Murrayfield. Goncalves offers a philosophical response.
“It’s fair because we are just in the top six and we are not doing prefect,” he acknowledged. “It’s normal that they are angry and we understand this. We are trying to improve and they must see this also and keep staying with us.
“In football, you can play bad and win games. If you are champions like this then nobody will speak.”
The gap between Hearts and newly-promoted Hibs will further irk those of a maroon persuasion. The Easter Road side are newly promoted to the Premiership and enjoying an impressive return to the top flight under the guidance of Neil Lennon.
Goncalves is confident those ten points can be overhauled. “It’s quite a lot but not impossible,” he said. “We haven’t played at home yet but I think Hibs have played six games at home already. Nothing is finished. We have a good run of games at Tynecastle, we must win them and get closer.
Playing “home” matches at BT Murrayfield has brought mixed fortunes for Hearts. They beat St Johnstone there and drew with Aberdeen, but lost to Rangers and Kilmarnock. The impending switch back to the other side of Edinburgh’s Western Approach Road can’t come quickly enough for some.
“Of course it’s difficult because Murrayfield is a huge stadium,” explained Goncalves, in reference to the 67,000 capacity of the home of Scottish Rugby.
“It’s not full but the fans who were there on Sunday against Kilmarnock, we could listen to them on the pitch and feel them there. It was still nice to play there with our fans but of course it’s different from Tynecastle. It’s more compact there, the fans are closer and on top of us. They are like a 12th player. I have seen the new stand and it’s looking nice, honestly. It’s looking great.”
Sunday was a weird day for the 26-year-old. Without reaching peak performance levels, he could still have scored a hat-trick and afforded Hearts a comfortable win, on paper at least.
He was thwarted early in the first half by the Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, who pushed his shot on to the post. Goncalves turned and beat MacDonald with a shot across the keeper after the break, only to see the ball rebound off the upright again.
Eventually, he did manage to angle a perfect finish into the top corner to level the scores at 1-1. He still had an opportunity to win the match with a few minutes remaining after Cole Stockton’s pass sent him through on MacDonald. The goalkeeper emerged quickly to block the shot, and moments later Adam Frizzell struck Kilmarnock’s second goal.
“Yeah, of course I should have scored,” admitted Goncalves when asked about the last of his chances. “I wanted to score but it’s football. If you don’t score, the other team will score. I haven’t seen it again yet. I’m just not happy.
“Now it’s finished. I cannot do anything else. I can’t change it so I must go forward and think about the next game.
“I will stay with my family and take some time off during the international break. Then I will start to prepare for the next game.”
As in recent weeks, Hearts are again likely to have at least one teenager in the starting line-up against Partick Thistle. Goncalves welcomes the club’s intention to blood youth academy players at senior level.
“I try to help the young kids who come in. I try to speak with them like everybody else – Christophe [Berra], Don [Cowie] and the other experienced players. We try to get the young boys on the pitch and help them. That’s all.”