Hearts from last season to this season: Points, prizes, perceptions and punters
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Saturday’s draw with Livingston at Tynecastle Park earned the hosts their 21st point from their 15th top-flight fixture entering the World Cup break. They are fifth in the table, four points behind third-placed Aberdeen. After 15 games last term, Hearts sat third on 27 points and would go on to finish there to secure the coveted prize of European group-stage football. Naturally, a table where your club is third makes more pleasant viewing than one in which they are fifth. Nonetheless, the six-point difference is the main focus. The reasons for it are easy to identify: Eight European ties, travelling across the Continent, a hectic schedule with matches crammed in to accommodate the winter World Cup, plus an injury list containing a full team of players.
Saturday was Hearts’ 24th competitive fixture this season, whereas last term it was December 18 before they had played that number of games. Given the Riccarton squad have just completed the most demanding and intense run of matches in club history, it is perhaps to their credit that they are only six points worse off than the same stage last year. Especially given injuries have sidelined influential first-team mainstays including Craig Halkett, Liam Boyce, Beni Baningime, Peter Haring, Kye Rowles and Stephen Kingsley. A half-term report card might read: “Can do better but progressing as expected under the circumstances.”
“We've had a very hectic start to the season with the European campaign and travelling back and forward. It was always going to be tough,” admitted the Hearts manager Robbie Neilson. “We have had 24 games in three and a half months. That's something we aren't used to. Now we have the winter break and after that it's back to normal service. I hope we don't get any more injuries so, when we get back from this break, we will have all players available apart from Boyce and Baningime. That will make a big difference to the group both on the pitch and off it.
“A number of players have had to play through injuries lately. Now we can get a wee bit of a rest and get back at it. The players have two weeks off and then we will have just over two weeks back in full training. The boys will do their own thing, little bits and bobs, so they should be in good condition when they come back in. Then we head over to Spain for the winter training camp to get ready for the matches starting again.”
Hearts resume league duties at home to Kilmarnock on December 17. Neilson pointed out that a higher number of matches increased the number of tackles, resulting in greater injury issues. The hope is that they subside to let the team climb to third again come May. “We've had a number of problems with the injuries we have had. The majority of them are contact injuries, which you can't really play for at all. That comes with playing more games,” he explained. “If you play double the amount of games, you will get double the amount of contacts. We lost a lot of key players. The objective has always been to be round about that third spot. We still have a very good squad [even with all the injuries]. We have a great starting line-up and a number of experienced players with real quality there.”
Two weeks of rest followed by two weeks of training and tactical work next month will effectively be a truncated pre-season for the Hearts players. “I think it will help us get everyone back fit. Saturday there was our 24th game, whereas normally we would have played about 17 or 18. It's a big difference,” added Neilson, who has become slightly frustrated not being able to devote as much time to on-pitch coaching as normal.
“It's the nature of European football. That's where our analysis and individual player stuff comes in. You need to use every opportunity to get your points across to the team. I'm actually looking forward to getting over to Spain to get back on a training pitch and get back to working on the team. For the last few months it's been game after game, so you get very little time on the grass. It's very difficult to do the on-pitch coaching and tactical work. I'm looking forward to getting back to implementing the basics of what we are trying to do with the team.”
Which is build intense attacking play into a possession-based playing system. Neilson is a Tynecastle veteran who spent ten years as a Hearts player and is now in his second spell as manager. He knows the requirements and what the paying punters want. “All the fans ask for is energy, work ethic and commitment to the cause. If you have a bit of ability and some quality on top of that, ideal. It's something we speak to the players about regularly,” he said.
“I keep harping on about the fans paying their hard-earned money into the Foundation of Hearts every month. These are people who don't have a lot of money and they are still contributing it, so the least they expect is that you give everything out there. If you have ability and you can do this or that with a ball, great – but the bare minimum is you need to run about and give everything to the cause. You have to put your body on the line, make tackles, be aggressive. The players then feel the reaction of the fans and it goes back and forward.”