Don Cowie believes struggling Hearts need to establish a collective identity if they are to get themselves back on track.
The Tynecastle side have slipped badly off the pace in their quest for another top-three finish in the Scottish Premiership and a guaranteed Europa League place.
A major phase of mid-season transition has proved to have a damaging effect on their season as they have lost six of their last seven games and now sit just three points above sixth-place Partick Thistle.
Aberdeen, by contrast, have motored clear in second place while St Johnstone, who defeated Hearts 1-0 on Wednesday, have overtaken the beleaguered Edinburgh outfit to move into fourth. Both the Dons and Saints have prospered in recent seasons by building around an established core of players who have served them well over a period of time.
Midfielder Cowie, now one of the longest-serving first-team regulars at Tynecastle despite only joining a year past January, acknowledges that Hearts are correct to strive to upgrade whenever possible. However, he feels a degree of continuity in personnel must be maintained in order to allow the team to forge a genuine unity and flourish consistently.
“We spoke after the Aberdeen game about the continuity they’ve got,” said Cowie. “They’ve probably been together three years as a squad and you see consistent results. On Tuesday, it was 10 home wins [in a row] and that’s not a fluke, it’s not random, it’s because they’re used to each other and again you saw that against St Johnstone [on Wednesday]. They know their strengths, they’re a together group and they play to their strengths and get results. Again it’s a squad that’s been together for a long time, so that’s something we need to learn from probably.”
Jamie Walker told the Evening News earlier this week that the level of change has been a factor in Hearts losing their way this season – a point backed up by Cowie. “It’s tough,” he said. “It’s well documented that there were a lot of changes in January and it’s not an excuse, that’s just what happened. There’s a few different cultures, maybe used to playing in different environments so it’s just trying to get everyone together and pulling in the same direction. There’s no bad eggs or anything like that in the dressing-room, but it’s just when confidence is low in football, unfortunately results don’t go for you.”
Fans have turned on Ian Cathro recently, but Cowie insists the under-fire head coach is not letting the pressure get to him. The veteran midfielder believes the players must carry the can for their form. “People will look at the manager and say it’s him, but it’s us players who have got to take responsibility. It’s a good squad there, good pedigree players and we’ve got to look at ourselves. There’s no point hiding behind the manager, we’ve got to take the criticism and get on with it. We’ve got seven games to go and a club the size of Hearts needs to be in the top four and we’ve got to do everything we can to try to make that happen.
“The manager is fully focused, he’s not going to back down from the challenges ahead. He knew when he got the job there was a lot of scrutiny because of his age and his lack of playing and stuff like that and he’s taken it full on. Sometimes you’ve just got to look beyond him and look at us and that’s what it is. It’s the players who haven’t performed well enough on a regular basis.”