Hearts are not heading to Pittodrie preoccupied with avoiding defeat, despite the chance to set a new club record of six games without conceding a goal.
As the Tynecastle squad prepared to travel north this afternoon for their final game of 2017, centre-back John Souttar explained that the priority is to win against Aberdeen regardless of defensive plaudits coming their way.
Wednesday’s Edinburgh derby stalemate was Hearts’ fifth successive clean sheet – and their eighth match in a row without losing. At one point earlier this year they struggled to last five minutes without conceding a goal, so five games represents a fair turnaround.
Never in their 143-year history have they managed six clean sheets on the bounce, however Souttar stressed that isn’t the main priority tomorrow.
“We go everywhere looking to win. Especially when we are on a run like this, we want to win,” said the 21-year-old. “Our mentality isn’t simply not to lose. We are going there to win. You never want to concede a goal as a defender but it definitely gives you extra focus when you have a run going. Hopefully we can keep that going at Pittodrie and carry it into the break.
“Pittodrie is never an easy place to go but if we don’t lose up there it will be a very good end to the year. We always said we would improve once we got back to Tynecastle. We said our season was starting when we came back and, although talk is cheap, we haven’t been beaten at home. We’ve proved we were right.”
Seven of Hearts’ last eight fixtures have taken place at their redeveloped spiritual home and they have used the advantage to propel themselves towards the Ladbrokes Premiership’s top four. They sit fifth at the moment, five points off rivals Hibs in fourth. “We’ve got to be in the top four. A club like Hearts has got to be up there,” Souttar remarked. “We have obviously narrowed the gap in the last few weeks but it was always going to be difficult to start the season with all those away games. Now, we can hopefully kick on in the second half of the season and get into the top four.”
The biggest hurdle of the campaign is now behind them with Tynecastle reopened and a seemingly relentless run of away games now over.
“There was a big deal made of it but rightly so. You tell anyone to play away from home for the first 13 or 14 games – it’s a hard, hard task. Coming back to Tynecastle has given us all a lift. Sometimes this crowd can carry you through games and they’ve done that since we got back.”
At the back of Souttar’s mind is the gnawing feeling that he and his team-mates can play better, more attractive football. Excepting the 4-0 thumping of Celtic two weeks ago, Hearts’ recent games have very much belonged in the “turgid” category. “I don’t think the derby was a great game from either side and I don’t think the pitch helped. Both teams can play better football,” admitted Souttar.
“We’ve got a good record having not conceded in a while and it’s great to be part of that as a back four. We have been tested by a good Hibs side and a good Celtic side. They both have good attacking qualities so to keep these clean sheets is pleasing. Drawing another game at home is still slightly disappointing, though.”
It might have been a defeat but for a dose of good fortune. Hibs striker Oli Shaw saw an early shot cross the line but the goal was not given.
“I went to block it and I didn’t even know where it bounced but sometimes that’s the sort of luck you need in a derby,” said Souttar. “Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. These things tend to even themselves out. I flicked one on in the second half and it hit someone’s hand apparently, so we might have had a penalty.
“Of course, we want to play better than we did in the derby and I don’t want to use excuses but the pitch was no good for people who want to play football. That’s not down to anyone in particular.
“The amount of money people have put into this club is incredible. We’ve got the stand now and I think things will start falling into place now that it’s built. Next year we will get a new pitch so the club is going in the right direction.”
Players and staff have certainly been galvanised towards the end of the year. Managed Craig Levein still intends to strengthen during the January transfer window.
“We’ve got to accept it. The gaffer has his own plans and his own ideas and everyone is just fighting to be part of his thoughts right now,” said Souttar. “We’ve always had a good team spirit but this run has helped it improve. It’s also a fairly new team. A few players came in during the summer so it was always going to take time to click. Just over the last two or three months, we’ve started to really gel.”
Souttar won’t be overly unhappy to see the end of 2017. He has played under four different managers at Hearts in the last 13 months and had injuries to contend with.
His form at the moment is settled, as his defensive partnership with Christophe Berra, and he is now eager to take that with him into the New Year.
“I think this has been a frustrating year for me on the whole. A lot of stuff has gone against me but, in the games I have played this season, I think it’s the most consistent I’ve been in my career so far. I’m getting a bit older now. I’m 21 and I’m enjoying playing in this team and I just want to continue improving.
“It was always the idea to play centre-back when I came here from Dundee United. I’ve played other positions before but I said right from the start that I want to be a centre-back and I want to defend.
“I think the gaffer drilled that into me as soon as I came here and hopefully it’s starting to pay off now.”