The Tynecastle players and management know they will need to get used to winning ugly. It’s a trait most teams have to show when gunning for a title and Hearts, heavy favourites for the Championship crown, are going to have to dig in a lot this season.
League 2 opponents Cowdenbeath on Saturday were, in some ways, the perfect foes on a slow, sticky artificial surface. They were well-drilled, played with two deep lines of four across the pitch and approached this Betfred Cup Group A tie like it was a cup final. The lesser lights of Scotland’s second tier will do the same when Hearts are up against them.
Trips to Alloa, Raith and Queen of the South will also mean more plastic pitches. Players don’t like to make excuses for poor performances on them, but let’s be honest, they don’t favour teams that like to move the ball about quickly and slickly. Hearts tried to shuttle the ball out wide and expose Cowdenbeath – who were unable to host at their home, Central Park, due to flood damage – but too often the moves broke down.
The surface is not all to blame; Hearts were way beneath their usual standard here. Pre-season displays have been much better and they really struggled to grab this match by the scruff of the neck until the last quarter of it, when Cowdenbeath started to tire. Craig Halkett powered a header home from an Elliott Frear cross on 78 minutes for the only goal of the game and while Jamie Walker should have doubled the scoreline with a stoppage-time penalty, Ross Sinclair’s save from Walker’s effort was justice in the fact that Gary Bollan’s plucky men did not merit a two-goal defeat.
We know that wasn’t up to scratch
"We got the win and that’s the most important thing,” admitted Halkett afterwards. “But I think in terms of our performance, we all know we need to be that bit better.
“The gaffer [Robbie Neilson] said to us afterwards that’s what games in the league are going to be like for us this season.
“We are the team that everyone wants to beat. We are the team that everyone expects to win the league.
“Teams are going to sit in and make it hard for us and make us work for the win. So I think it’s good to have a game like this to give a few boys a wake up call that it’s not going to be pretty football every week. We are not going to be able to pass it about and score three, four, five goals. We are going to have to work for it and sometimes we are going to win 1-0 or it’s going to be 1-1 and we will have to wait for a last minute winner. So it was good that we have had that reminder early and we can talk about it.”
Mitigating circumstances but misfiring midfield
In defence of Hearts, this is only their fifth outing of any consequence since March and it takes time to get up to speed. Main striker Liam Boyce and regular right-back Michael Smith were ruled out due to international duty with Northern Ireland, while Andy Irving’s late call-up to the Scotland Under-21 squad forced Neilson to change his plans late on. Scott McGill, an 18-year-old academy graduate, came in for Irving and made a solid enough debut given the circumstances.
Captain Steven Naismith led the line, but found the pitch not to his liking and was removed from proceedings for Craig Wighton at the interval. Hearts flitted between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 in search of a goal and while Walker, Josh Ginnelly and Jordan Roberts all had reasonable chances, a set-piece goal always seemed the most likely outcome.
Hearts will need to be better in midfield. Olly Lee once again started in the No.6 role next to McGill – but his level was beneath what he can bring to the table. Competition for places in there is high and Irving’s creative passing was missed. Peter Haring came on towards the end and that will have pleased Neilson hugely. He will be a midfield monster for Hearts once fully fit in the Championship.
Case for the defence
One plus point of the afternoon in Fife was Hearts’ defence: Craig Gordon was unflappable in goal, while Halkett and Mihai Popescu continued their partnership in central defence. Hearts are yet to concede a goal in any of their past five matches and look well-drilled and water-tight.
"The gaffer was happy with things at the back,” said Halkett. “We just need to find that killer pass. It was not for the lack of trying. We got into the final third a good amount of times. We need a bit of patience and good decision-making to make the right pass that leads to a goal.”
The games continue to come thick and fast for Neilson’s men, when Raith Rovers visit Gorgie on Tuesday in Hearts’ penultimate pool match before the league kicks off against Dundee on Friday. A victory over the Kirkcaldy outfit will all but seal a smooth passage into the last 16 of the tournament, which would be refreshing considering past travails with previous group stages. At least they’ve been forewarned of the challenges ahead as the big fish in their pond.