Gary Mackay: Next two games will shape rest of Hearts’ season

Hearts fell apart following the injury suffered by Don Cowie early in the second half at Dens Park
Hearts fell apart following the injury suffered by Don Cowie early in the second half at Dens Park
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Ian Cathro has had as tough a baptism as I can remember any Hearts manager having in terms of how badly his first three games have panned out.

The first game was poor, the second game was good in the first half and poor in the second half, and Friday’s game was really promising for an hour or so, and then we fell apart after Don Cowie went off. If we’re serious about challenging the likes of Aberdeen and Rangers, we can’t use the loss of one experienced player as an excuse for allowing a 2-0 lead against a team near the bottom of the league to flip into a 3-2 defeat.

It’s safe to say the learning curve has been steep for Cathro over the past few weeks, but it’s still far too early to be judging the head coach either way. Although some of it has been poor, some of it – particularly the first 50-odd minutes on Friday – has been really good. However, as is always the case, the demands at Hearts mean that results have to start coming soon. It’s all very well looking at the good progress off the pitch and looking at the long-term future, but – rightly or wrongly – Hearts supporters will only be satisfied by what they’re seeing on the pitch in the here and now, and right now, for a variety of reasons, it’s not happening.

Our recent results have now put real pressure on the team and the head coach to get positive results at home to Kilmarnock and Aberdeen this week. These two games are now absolutely massive in terms of how our season is going to pan out.

Rangers are now ten points clear of us, Aberdeen are threatening to pull away from us and St Johnstone are closing in on us. Incredibly, we are now as close to ninth-place Partick as we are to Rangers, which certainly didn’t seem a likely scenario after we beat them to move into second place less than a month ago.

We urgently need an upturn in results to get some momentum back, and, for me, four points has to be a minimum requirement from this week’s games to ensure we don’t go into the winter break on a real downer.

At the very least, we need to try and eat into Aberdeen’s advantage over us – we can’t have them going six, or even nine, points ahead of us with a game in hand, or then we’d really be up against it.

It’ll be really tough for the Hearts players tomorrow night because Killie can come to Tynecastle – like Partick Thistle last week – with very little to lose. Kris Boyd’s presence will add to the narrative of the match for outsiders after his comments about Cathro, but, in a situation like this, the Hearts players and manager won’t need an opposing player’s opinions to motivate them – first and foremost, they should be driven by professional pride and a desire to get back on track after a really disappointing few weeks in which we’ve picked up just one point from a possible nine.

There will be a concern about the possibility of the crowd turning again if the team start slowly tomorrow but, on the positive side, if we start the way we did at Dens Park, then the crowd will get behind them. That will come down to the bravery of the individuals in the Hearts team. Everyone needs to embrace a difficult situation and make sure they aren’t scared to get on the ball and take the game to Killie from the first whistle. It will be a test, but there have been plenty times in the recent past when this group of players have been able to respond to criticism with a positive result.

Looking back on what has generally been a year of consolidation, the high point for me, from a footballing perspective, was obviously qualifying for Europe, even though we didn’t do as well in the Europa League as we would have hoped.

The overall highlight of 2016, however, was the fact that, after several years of uncertainty, we finally got the all-clear to remain at our spiritual home and start redeveloping Tynecastle. The key now is to ensure that we are able to maintain enthusiasm among our loyal support so that we are still playing to full houses when the new stand opens in 2017. That will only be done by winning football matches and remaining in the upper echelons of the Premiership – a task which, after a tricky few weeks, has to resume this week.