Hearts fans can rest assured they have a goalkeeper full of confidence and ambition as they arrive at Tynecastle for tomorrow’s showdown with Celtic.
In a bold pre-match interview, Jon McLaughlin outlined his belief that his team, buoyed by a five-match unbeaten run and the second-best defensive record in the Premiership, can end the champions’ remarkable 69-match undefeated sequence against Scottish opposition. In addition to this, having helped Hearts leapfrog St Johnstone and Motherwell in recent weeks to climb from seventh to fifth in the Premiership, the sure-footed goalkeeper now has his sights set on catching Hibs, who currently sit six points ahead in fourth place.
Hearts went into the last derby in October above their city rivals but, after their 1-0 defeat sparked a run of contrasting form for the two Capital sides, they found themselves 11 points behind Neil Lennon’s team going into last weekend’s fixtures.
Having cut the deficit with back-to-back wins over Motherwell and Dundee, an opportunity to overtake Hibs could arise as early as 27 December, when the two Capital sides reconvene at Tynecastle, although this scenario will probably require Hearts to take at least four points from Celtic and St Johnstone over the next week and the Hibees to simultaneously spill points against Aberdeen or Ross County.
“Looking at Hibs, we know that if results don’t go their way and we get a couple of good results before we play them, we’re going into a fixture where everything is where it was when we played at Easter Road,” said McLaughlin, mindful of the fact Hibs have, temporarily at least, seized the upper hand in Edinburgh on the back of an eight-game unbeaten derby run. “We could have the opportunity to go above them, so we’re looking at that ahead of these next few games, even though it’s going to be difficult against Celtic.
“If we can get a result and back that up against St Johnstone, they could be a great couple of results going into the derby. That’s what everyone on this side of Edinburgh wants, to be able to close that gap on Hibs – and then go into that game with a chance, at Tynecastle, to take all the bragging rights back. That’s the situation in any derby rivalry, any two teams of this size in close proximity. We know exactly how big the task is – but exactly how much everyone wants to turn the tables in this rivalry.”
While Hearts, depleted by injuries, will be written off as no-hopers by many ahead of tomorrow’s match, McLaughlin sees reason for optimism. He senses that Celtic, wary of losing their much-vaunted record, are starting to feel the pressure after some unconvincing displays in recent months. They have required late equalisers in three of their last 14 league matches and have dropped points in three four of their last seven games. “The pressure is on them, not us,” said McLaughlin. “The expectations from everyone is that Celtic are going to be the dominant team. They’ve got this run going – when they’re playing in Scotland, they don’t lose. But we know that we’ve got a couple of wins under our belt, to at least take a bit of pressure off ourselves.
“Defensively, we’ve done well over the past five or six games, so it’s up to us to make it as uncomfortable a day as we can for Celtic. I think everybody realises that we’re probably not going to go out there and really be the ones in possession for large parts of the game. It’s more case of can we make it as frustrating a day as possible for them.
“A lot of teams have done that this season. If you look at the teams who have managed to get draws, even come close to beating Celtic, it’s when they’ve really frustrated them and made it difficult for them. That’s our focus. Anything we get out of the game is a bonus, really, in the big picture, so there’s not a lot of pressure on us.
“All you need is a bit of luck on the day, put in your best performance and maybe things go your way. At the same time, they’ve got it at the back of their minds that any little mistake from any individual, or collectively, will culminate in ending not just one result, but 70 results. It starts to build for them and becomes more difficult.
No-one is looking at the defeats in Europe and thinking, ‘ah, that’s how we’ll do it’. With the calibre of teams they’re playing there, there’s certainly no embarrassment there. But they’ve been drawing quite a few games over this run. It’s not like Man City (who have won 15 league games in a row) where they are putting everyone to the sword, three or four every week. There have been tight games and ones where Celtic have almost thrown it away, ones where they’ve had to claw it back real late, so there is certainly not the invincible tag there that maybe there is with others. It’s one to go and enjoy and if you can be the one to do it then it’s a huge feather in the cap, and we’d enjoy that.”