Penalties are a hot topic at Riccarton just now. Hearts have been awarded six already this season and August isn’t even finished.
Converting them has proven problematical, with only three finding the net. Osman Sow, Juanma and Gavin Reilly have each scored one and missed one, creating the dilemma of who should step up if referee Willie Collum points to the spot at Hamilton tomorrow.
Reilly is the latest to suffer the ignominy of failing to score a penalty. He is determined to take another if asked, though. Forfar goalkeeper Rab Douglas defied all of his 43 years to throw himself right and block the striker’s spot-kick with Tuesday night’s League Cup tie poised at 0-0. As an encore, Douglas then reacted instantly to push Juanma’s follow-up to safety. Reilly recovered to score the goal which ultimately won Hearts the tie but admits penalties are causing slight concern.
Every Hearts game to date this season has included a penalty award – Ross County’s Liam Boyce scored the only one given against the Edinburgh club two weeks ago. Hearts are scoring freely from open play with 19 goals altogether in seven competitive fixtures. They sit top of the league with a 100 per cent record heading to Lanarkshire. Registering from the spot isn’t so straightforward but something they plan to address.
“I’ve missed one and there are a couple of others who have missed,” said Reilly. “I think we need to work on them in training but, if I was asked to step up again, I would step up. I remember watching Hearts last season and they missed a couple of penalties as well. Near enough everyone has had a shot of taking one.
“I watched the replay of my penalty from Tuesday and I can’t believe big Rab’s got down to it at 43 years old. I was amazed. Guys are confident of taking them and I would step up if called on. We just need to see what’s in the manager’s thoughts. He might have ideas of who he wants to hit one.”
The manager isn’t unduly perturbed and is content to roll with the punches to an extent. “It’s something we had spoken about before and we have been practising them but, hey, these things happen,” said Robbie Neilson. “I thought Reilly’s was a good penalty. Rab went early and got down well and made a great save. Sometimes you just need to take those on the chin.
“Now and again we practise penalties. You can’t dedicate loads of time to practising them. We do it but this is the way it is at the moment. I don’t want to make too much of a deal of it. The pleasing thing is we’re getting into these areas because we’ve got guys with pace and ability who can go past opponents. People are taking them down but need to take advantage of these situations we get. We just need to make sure we score the next one.”
Having scored the winner on Tuesday, Reilly is hopeful of being involved at New Douglas Park. His Hearts career has started gently since he joined from Queen of the South in the summer, with three starts and two goals to date.
“The manager told me when I first came here that I wouldn’t be starting every game,” he revealed. “I’ve got to expect that coming up to the Premiership. There are bigger squads and more rotation. From the game time he’s given me so far, he’s told me he’s pleased and just to keep doing what I’m doing. I think I’ve fitted in well. It was good to get my first goal with the penalty against Motherwell, that eased the nerves a wee bit.
“Getting my first goal from open play on Tuesday at Forfar was even better. Missing the penalty left me a bit down but I bounced back. I definitely got the last touch and these are the kind of goals strikers have to claim. It’s down as my goal. Now I’ve got my first goal from open play, I’d like to get my first from open play in the Premiership. You hope that, once one goes in, they keep coming. As long as I’m helping the team, working hard and setting up chances for other people, I’m happy.
“Getting goals is a bonus but in the back of your mind you know you need to get off the mark at a new club. Strikers get confidence from scoring. I think I’ve been doing well so far. Even in the games I haven’t scored, I think I’ve contributed, but getting a goal gives you that confidence to go into the next match and go for another one.
“I’ve scored, Juanma’s scored, Osman’s scored, Sam’s scored. That shows we’ve got goals all across the front four. The manager will be delighted with that but there will be different scorers when the team is getting rotated.”
Leaving Palmerston Park for Tynecastle represents Reilly’s shot at the big time. He is 22 and, after more than 100 games for formative club Queen of the South, is eager to progress his career. Even he couldn’t have imagined reaching the Ladbrokes Premiership summit so quickly.
“It’s my first proper shot at playing in the Premiership. I played against top-flight teams with Queen of the South but now I’m doing it week in and week out,” he said. “It’s a lot quicker and more physical than the Championship. The ball is moved with one and two touches rather than three or four. I feel as if I’ve coped well so I’m enjoying it at the moment.
“I feel comfortable playing either as a No.9 or No.10. I’ve played on the left and the right but I think one of those two central places is probably my best position. If the manager wants me to fill in out wide, I’m happy to do that.
“The majority of the team is near enough my age and it’s a good bunch. There are older boys who help the younger ones coming through and we’re off to a great start. Everyone is just driven to keep going at the moment. We want another win tomorrow before the international break. You don’t want to go the international break on a downer. If we win, that’s six out of six in the league. You can’t ask for any more.
“From playing against Hearts last season and watching them, I thought this team would go up into the Premiership and do well. The aim is top six but I think everyone has been astonished by how well we’ve done. That’s credit to ourselves and how hard we’ve worked. We won’t get too far ahead of ourselves. Hamilton away is a hard game so we’ll aim for three points there. You take it one week at a time. Who knows how far we can go?”