Four away games followed by a home match against Aberdeen: The task facing Hearts’ young and inexperienced caretaker management team is formidable, to say the least.
Jon Daly, Austin MacPhee and Liam Fox are in charge on an interim basis following the sacking of head coach Ian Cathro. They will try to give Hearts the best possible start in the Ladbrokes Premiership against treble-winners Celtic this weekend. It is the first in a daunting run of fixtures for anyone merely trying to steady the ship.
After Parkhead come trips to Kilmarnock, Rangers and Motherwell before Aberdeen visit Edinburgh on September 9. That sequence would be difficult for a settled team thriving under an established manager. Hearts are none of that entering the new campaign.
Cathro’s eight-month tenure ended early on Tuesday morning, leaving his assistant MacPhee, Under-20 coach Daly and first-team coach Fox to hold the reins at Riccarton for the time being. Daly is aged 34, MacPhee 37 and Fox 33. None have proper managerial experience, although Daly and Fox both enjoyed top-level football in their playing days.
Daly had one game in temporary charge of Hearts last December in between Robbie Neilson’s exit and Cathro’s arrival – a 2-2 draw at Ross County. Fox managed Cowdenbeath last season but resigned in March with the club bottom of League Two and in danger of dropping out of Scotland’s professional leagues. MacPhee is a highly-rated assistant coach who works at international level with Northern Ireland but has never managed in his own right.
The triumvirate will head west on Saturday seeking to spring a surprise if they can revitalise the Tynecastle first-team squad. Hearts won only eight of their last 30 competitive games and failed to beat League Two Peterhead and Championship side Dunfermline in their previous two. That led to a Betfred Cup exit which angered supporters and sealed Cathro’s fate.
They begin the 2017/18 league campaign at Celtic Park against a team undefeated domestically since May 11, 2016. Brendan Rodgers’ so-called “invincibles” are one of the most efficient and motivated groups ever to grace the Parkhead turf. Stopping them is becoming something of a holy grail in Scotland due to their dominance.
Hearts’ top-flight away form doesn’t offer too much encouragement for those in interim charge. Indeed, results outwith Tynecastle have been the cause of much consternation for several years.
Three league away wins last season was symptomatic of the malaise which set in. They managed seven the year before whilst qualifying for Europe. Prior to spending season 2014/15 in the Championship, there were four away victories in 2013/14, two in 2012/13, and four in 2011/12.
The situation isn’t without positives, however. Daly, MacPhee and Fox will have some options available to them which could make Hearts a more solid, cohesive and threatening unit against Celtic.
Uppermost in their minds will be whether to hand the on-loan Liverpool player Connor Randall a debut in such an intimidating venue. The 21-year-old experienced grounds like Anfield and St Mary’s in his eight first-team appearances for Liverpool, so it wouldn’t be like throwing in a complete rookie. Randall is to be used as a midfielder by Hearts despite playing in defence for his parent club. He is described as a “young, talented and tenacious player”, who grew up as a midfielder before switching to the back. He played right-back and left-back for Liverpool, so versatility is clearly not a problem.
Randall remained on the substitutes’ bench throughout last weekend’s 2-2 Betfred Cup draw with Dunfermline but is pushing to get on the pitch against Celtic.
Another player available is Rafal Grzelak. He was suspended against Dunfermline having received two bookings in Hearts’ previous Betfred Cup group matches. Daly, MacPhee and Fox must decide whether to deploy a back three like Cathro or revert to a four-man defence. Do they reinstate Grzelak at left-back or the fit-again Ashley Smith-Brown? Grzelak would be the more solid, defensive option but Manchester City loanee Smith-Brown offers more attacking threat.
John Souttar is unlikely to be risked at centre-back as he improves match fitness following a ruptured Achilles tendon. He played two weeks ago against East Fife but looked exposed against Dunfermline. There may be a return for Aaron Hughes alongside captain Christophe Berra in central defence but, again, that depends on the 37-year-old proving his fitness. He hasn’t played since Hearts’ 1-0 win at Elgin City two weeks ago.
Playing away from home while Tynecastle’s new £12million main stand is completed makes the job doubly difficult. Of course, Daly, MacPhee and Fox may not be in charge for all of these matches if the Hearts board act and appoint a permanent successor to Cathro in the next couple of weeks.
For now, they are a new Riccarton Three - the men the Edinburgh club have asked to get them off to a decent start in the new league campaign.