After five days in the Spanish sunshine, Hearts return to five games in 13 days – starting with an Edinburgh derby on Sunday. It is a situation manager Craig Levein describes as “mental”.
The Scottish Cup tie against Hibs precedes Wednesday’s league visit to Hamilton, Saturday’s home match with Motherwell, then a trip to Celtic three days later and a meeting with St Johnstone the following weekend.
A three-week winter break allowed some much-needed recuperation time for Levein’s injured players. Some of those are key protagonists in Hearts’ quest for European football, so the manager will not complain about the rest time.
However, cramming fixtures in both before and after a very short break can also put added pressure on players. Levein must manage his squad accordingly.
“It’s mental. You get a winter break and then you don’t get eased back into it. All of a sudden it’s foot to the floor. However, that’s the way it is so there’s no point moaning about it,” he said.
“The break has actually been quite good for us. We had quite a few injured players who would never have been involved in this Hibs game if it had taken place at the start of the month. It’s helped us on this occasion so I’m not going to complain about it.”
Hearts arrived back from the Costa Blanca on Tuesday and immediately intensified their preparations for Hibs’ visit. “It sharpens your senses,” explained Levein. “It’s a big match for us. Hibs have been away as well. It’s just about how the preparations have gone. We will be trying our best to make sure we’re right at it from the first whistle.
“We’ve done work over in Spain and now we’re concentrating on the game on Sunday. We’ve watched Hibs and we’ve looked at how we’re going to play so it’s all normal football stuff.”
It is far from a normal cup tie, though. Hibs haven’t lost any of the last nine Edinburgh derbies, Hearts are seeking to extend their club record of six clean sheets, and the Tynecastle side are unbeaten in their last nine league games.
This one offers the reward of a Scottish Cup fifth-round place. “There are all these outside things and different bits and pieces, but it will come down to who does better on the day,” observed Levein. “The preparation is important. My experience in the past with these winter breaks is that it isn’t always easy to negotiate what to do. We’re hoping we’ve got it right.”
Friendlies against Vitesse Arnhem and Nurnberg brought a 1-1 draw and 5-0 defeat respectively. The benefits of the trip went beyond simple scorelines for the Hearts coaching staff as they try to develop a host of teenage players into first-team assets.
“The young lads have had some brilliant experience of being away for a period of time and being able to spend more time with the senior players. They’ve been able to talk to the established guys about various bits and bobs,” said Levein.
“The benefits of these things aren’t always obvious but when you have young players it’s particularly important that they start to learn about being away from home, staying in hotels and how you behave.
“You don’t spend time around Aaron Hughes, Don Cowie and Christophe Berra without picking up some important information. The trip was really good from that point of view.”
It also allowed loan signing Demetri Mitchell from Manchester United a chance to acquaint himself with new colleagues. He flew into Hearts’ training base last Friday afternoon. “Demi obviously didn’t know anybody. The best thing to do in that situation is to have five or six days in everybody’s company,” explained Levein. “That way, you get to know them all pretty quickly. At home, you’re in at the training ground for four or five hours and then away.
“We obviously got a bit of a pasting the other day against Nurnberg but we didn’t set the team up to win, as such, it was more about just getting some game time. We didn’t pick up any injuries in Spain, which I’m happy about.”
Mitchell played against Nurnberg and Levein saw flashes of talent in the 21-year-old left-back. “He does what we thought he did. He’s an attacking player who gets forward with pace. He’s genuinely exciting and he’s shown that in training. When we put a stronger team out round about him, then that’s going to help him.
“I think everybody has to remember he is young. If he was 24 years old, we wouldn’t be getting him. There is an element of patience with him. We have a lot of players near his age so he’ll feel the environment is something that’s conducive to him feeling good and playing good football.”