Gary Mackay: As each week passes for Hearts, I get less confident - this situation is now critical
Our columnist has his say on the predicament Hearts find themselves in
It now feels like things are getting extremely critical for Hearts. I’ve always felt that we had a squad that was too strong to go down but with each passing week, I’m getting less and less confident.
The change of manager earlier in the season gave me real hope that things would be fine, and even though results haven’t been coming for Daniel Stendel I’ve always been encouraged by the attacking intent the team has shown under him. This gave me enough belief that results would soon turn for the better and that other teams would ultimately prove to be more fragile than us. That scenario is not coming to fruition as yet, however, and with only 11 games left, we still find ourselves rooted to the foot of the table and unable to eke out victories.
There was a time not so long ago when it looked like the entire bottom-six was involved in a relegation battle. In light of the way the last few weeks have unfolded, though, it now looks to be a three-way battle to avoid finishing bottom between ourselves, Hamilton Accies and St Mirren.
One of those three teams will be relegated automatically and the chances are one of the other two will be in the play-offs.
If we’re serious about getting out of this mess over the closing 11 games of the season, or at least getting ourselves into the play-off, we simply have to capitalise on the games against our nearest rivals. Having blown our chance to beat Hamilton on Saturday, it is now absolutely imperative that we defeat St Mirren this Friday night. If we can do that, the dynamic should shift in a significantly more positive manner for Hearts.
There are six games to go before the split and the most crucial thing for Hearts in that time is that we don’t get cut adrift. Ideally we would get ourselves off the bottom before the split but it is vital that we remain at least within touching distance of the teams directly above us so that the games against St Mirren and Hamilton after the split effectively become six-pointers. That means we will probably have to win at least one or two of our next six games, starting with St Mirren on Friday.
The personnel and the playing style may have changed over the past couple of months but, worryingly, we continue to be plagued by a defensive fragility which is killing our prospects of winning matches. In recent games against St Johnstone, Kilmarnock and Hamilton - three teams we need to be taking points off if we want to stay up - we have scored seven goals and taken just two points. Our inability to keep the ball out of the net is badly hindering our bid to stay in the Premiership.
On Saturday, we had a starting lineup containing four current internationalists for Scotland and Northern Ireland and another who came off the bench, yet still we find ourselves scrapping to earn a point at home in a crucial fixture at home to the side directly above us. The manner in which we found ourselves 2-0 down was alarming. When you’re sitting bottom of the league and your goal difference is as bad as ours, you have to look at ways of keeping the ball out of the net.
All good teams are based on being sound defensively and in my view we still have the personnel to be a good team. I know the manager wants his defenders to be involved in the play and take risks, but I feel in our predicament we need to ensure the defensive players and the goalkeeper are aware of their defensive responsibilities first and foremost. As a defensive unit, our communication needs to be far better than it has been recently. Ideally, we will be able to have a some consistency of selection across the back line in the closing months of the season so the players in that area can develop an understanding.
We have an array of attacking players who are perfectly capable of hurting the opposition and winning us games, as evidenced by the number of goals we have been scoring recently - Celtic game apart. However, all that counts for nothing if we can’t keep the ball out at the other end. It shouldn’t be too much to expect this group of players to be capable of playing with attacking intent while also maintaining a solid base.
Individually, player for player, this Hearts team should be nowhere near the bottom of the league. There is no question we have plenty good players within this squad. We can go on and on about individuals but ultimately this is a team game. There is no “I” in team. Maybe that’s the problem at Tynecastle just now. Perhaps there are simply too many individuals at Hearts and no proper team ethic within the dressing room. When all is said and done, however, the reputations of all these individuals will be seriously damaged if they don’t get Heart of Midlothian out of this grim predicament over the next few months.