There’s a tweet been doing the rounds over the past few days which reads: “Being a Hearts fan is feeling utter rage at drawing with Partick Thistle and simultaneously checking if I’m free on the dates of the semi-final.”
This sense of exasperation intertwined with optimism, articulated by @gavmcb9, is sure to resonate with most Jambos as Hearts’ hard-to-fathom campaign enters its business end.
The next two months will decide whether this goes down as one of the Tynecastle club’s most fruitful seasons of the modern era or one of their most anti-climactic. Delirium or deflation? There is unlikely to be any middle ground when the dust settles in May.
With the prospect of a Scottish Cup semi-final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, currently fifth in the Championship, if they can overcome Partick Thistle – bottom of the Championship – in Tuesday’s quarter-final replay at Tynecastle, there is a clear and favourable route mapped out to a first major final since 2013.
In addition, Hearts sit just three points outside the Europa League places and are about to face two of the league’s bottom three teams at a time when the team above them – Kilmarnock – appear to have lost their way and have a formidable trip to Ibrox on the horizon the game after next.
On paper, a place in the Scottish Cup final and qualification for the Europe League should be well within the capabilities of a team who were virtually untouchable in the opening three months of the season.
As they prepare to face Dundee away this weekend, it is worth remembering that the last time they played at Dens Park, in late October, they cruised to a 3-0 win which took them six points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership. That mild autumn night, everything seemed possible for Hearts. There was even some light-hearted chat of a domestic treble, with the Betfred Cup semi-final against Celtic looming just a few days later. That night on Tayside was as good as it would get for Hearts in terms of dreaming of a first league title since 1960. Ever since, things have never been the same. The team’s malaise through the winter months has caused supporters to temper expectations to the point where many now find it hard to envisage celebrating anything come May.
They return to Dundee this weekend in desperate need of a pick-me-up. For all that Europe and the Scottish Cup are still there for the taking, the far grimmer scenario being pondered by sections of the fanbase is a mid-table finish (or worse) coupled with a cup exit at the hands of a Championship side.
In light of current form, and considering the general lack of vibrancy within the team at present, there is valid reason for concern.
In Hearts’ past six matches, they have beaten only Auchinleck Talbot. Since the winter break, Dundee, Livingston, Motherwell, St Mirren and Partick Thistle have all avoided defeat. This inability to deal with weaker opponents is why a place in the Scottish Cup final can’t be taken for granted. And why six points from the next two league games, away to Dundee and Hamilton Accies, can’t be considered a particularly likely outcome.
If Hearts slip up in either of those fixtures, suddenly their top-six place will come into jeopardy.
They are six points ahead of seventh-place St Johnstone with five games to play before the split, so look reasonably safe in the top half for now. The Perth side face four of the current bottom six within that period, however, while Hearts finish with a tough run of fixtures against Aberdeen, Rangers and Hibs. Hearts must also be wary of the prospect of allowing their city rivals, currently just three points behind them after a mini-resurgence under Paul Heckingbottom, to sneak back in front in a season in which, for the vast majority, they have looked certain to finish as the Capital’s top team.
With so much at stake in the next two months, Craig Levein’s team urgently need to find some inspiration.
There was a period just after the winter break when they looked to be reigniting after defeating Livingston, St Johnstone and Kilmarnock, but since then they have lost their way again, leading to a scenario whereby they were booed off by a large travelling support following Monday’s slack second-half display against Partick.
In addition to their poor form, Steven Naismith now faces another extended injury lay-off. If they are to get their season back on track, Hearts, who still have plenty quality in their ranks, desperately need others to step up and make the difference in tight matches.
Sean Clare has shown glimpses in recent months, but more ruthlessness is required from the Englishman. Uche Ikpeazu looks to be getting back to his best but, as the team’s main striker, he needs to get back on the goal trail soon. David Vanecek, following a false start to his Hearts career, could yet emerge as a key man. With the team in need of fresh zest, others such as young trio Callumn Morrison, Harry Cochrane and Aidan Keena could – and arguably should – come more prominently into the mix.
Over the past few months, Hearts have slipped from the top of the Premiership to the periphery of the Europa League zone. With their campaign now entering its defining phase, their supporters will be hoping this Saturday’s return to the scene of that exhilarating October evening can spark things back into life.