The battle for Hearts’ coaches and players is surely to avoid losing momentum before the season ends. A run of only one win in their last five games now includes underwhelming displays against St Johnstone, Inverness and Motherwell. There is a danger of the season petering out.
Now, no-one should forget that third place and a Europa League qualifying berth are already secured. To that end, season 2015/16 is already a quite staggering success at Tynecastle. Nonetheless, momentum can be everything in football. Hearts’ first European tie is on June 30 and they must avoid a tame end to this campaign spilling over into the next.
Their performance in Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Fir Park is a case in point. It lacked impetus and tempo against the Ladbrokes Premiership’s in-form side. Motherwell’s deserved 1-0 win was their seventh victory in nine games and propels them to fourth place in the table.
Hearts still harbour hopes of overhauling Aberdeen to finish second, but remain eight points adrift of their Pittodrie counterparts. The difference in prize money from the Scottish Professional Football League is almost £300,000 from third place to second. The propulsion from finishing the season strongly is probably even more important.
Aberdeen lost at McDiarmid Park on Friday night but, less than 24 hours later, Hearts stumbled in Lanarkshire and failed to close in. Losing to Lionel Ainsworth’s first-half goal in a game of poor quality means the Pittodrie club are still comfortably in control of that second spot with four games left.
“With Aberdeen losing on Friday night, it was a great chance for us,” admitted Don Cowie. “We’ve talked over the last few weeks about our aim and our target was them. You get that bonus with their result on Friday and it was up to us to take advantage. We just weren’t good enough on the day to do that.
“You need to find out why. You get that opportunity to go and put a bit of pressure on. We know we play Aberdeen in a couple of weeks so it could’ve made it very interesting had we won on Saturday. We didn’t and we just have to accept that Motherwell were the better team.
“It’s going to be hard [over the next few weeks] but you’ve got to keep believing and keep going. There are 12 points to play for. We’ll look at this game and where we went wrong and I think everyone will hold their hands up and admit it wasn’t good enough. We’ve got four games to put that right. The boys have had a tremendous season so far and we don’t want it to end on a sour note.”
Motherwell continue thrusting forwards and, although they weren’t swashbuckling either at the weekend, they carried more purpose than their guests. Ainsworth struck on 28 minutes from Scott McDonald’s lay-off and McDonald ought to have put the result beyond doubt in the second half. He dispossessed Prince Buaben 20 yards from goal and confronted Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander one-on-one. His erratic finish ended up in the stand, though, and the score remained 1-0.
Hearts applied pressure in the closing stages without managing to bombard the Motherwell goal, which was well guarded by Craig Samson. “It comes down to standards,” continued Cowie. “You set standards and the fans have witnessed all season that the boys have been on it. They’ve been tremendous, obviously on the back of a great season last year. At the end of the day, we want to keep momentum. Winning breeds confidence.
“If we can do that, it sets us up for next season. It’s going to be a difficult season next year as well. You’ve got to keep it going. Football can change very quickly so you’ve got to keep that momentum going. Hopefully we can do that and get ready for next year.”
Next up is an encounter with Celtic at Tynecastle on Saturday lunchtime. For Motherwell, it’s a trip to Pittodrie. It is doubtful whether any Premiership venue will daunt Mark McGhee or his players given the rapid improvement since the manager’s appointment in Lanarkshire last October. They have beaten both Aberdeen and Hearts in the last few weeks and look like a convincing bet to finish fourth.
“We’d have liked another goal for breathing space in the game because Hearts came onto us in the last ten minutes. I thought it was a really good performance, though,” said McGhee. “The boys have trained well in the last week and I’d have been disappointed if they didn’t take that into the game.
“I said to a couple of people before the game to look out for Lionel because he was on fire in training. We were happy to be giving him his chance. He’s had a difficult, frustrating season but we all believe in him. We all know he’s got huge talent and we’re trying to find a way of allowing him to deliver it. This was maybe a start towards building his confidence so that maybe next year could be his year.”