Hearts enter Sunday’s showdown with Rangers buoyed by the knowledge that the Ibrox side haven’t triumphed at Tynecastle since a Sone Aluko goal and an Andrew Little double secured a 3-0 away win six and a half years ago.
At that point, in April 2012, Rangers had just gone into administration a couple of months previously while Hearts, who would follow suit a year later, were a month away from their famous Scottish Cup final victory over Hibs under Paulo Sergio.
In the intervening period, largely due to the four years Rangers spent in the lower leagues following their financial implosion, there have been only four meetings between the teams in Gorgie. Hearts have won three of those matches while the other ended in a 2-2 draw on the day Robbie Neilson’s side received the Championship trophy following their procession to the title in 2014/15.
Due to the redevelopment of Tynecastle and a fixture misnomer that meant Rangers played Hearts three times at Ibrox, the only meeting between the teams in Edinburgh last season was staged at BT Murrayfield, where the Glasgow team won 3-1. It is 22 months since Rangers were last tested in the confines of Tynecastle Park, and that night, on February 1 last year, they wilted in the face of a high-intensity display as Jamie Walker inspired Ian Cathro’s new-look side to a 4-1 victory.
Two months prior to that, Hearts had bludgeoned Rangers in similarly emphatic fashion as Robbie Muirhead scored twice in Neilson’s final match in charge before departing for MK Dons. Don Cowie played in both of those memorable victories in the 2016/17 campaign and scored in the most recent one. The former Hearts midfielder is in no doubt about the key factors involved in getting the upper hand against Rangers at Tynecastle.
“We put Rangers under a lot of pressure and got the fans behind us,” Cowie told the Evening News. “Until you’re out there on the pitch, you don’t know how powerful that can be. Just little things like winning a throw-in, winning a free-kick or winning a tackle, they all give the Hearts fans an incredible lift in these games. That’s what we did in those games against Rangers two seasons ago, and it got the fans right behind us.
“As a player, that gives you the energy to really kick on and put them under pressure. There was a lot of quality from us as well, but those results were based on hard work and putting Rangers under pressure.”
The Rangers team Hearts defeated twice two seasons ago was managed by Mark Warburton, whose expansive style was picked apart by the hosts’ intense approach on both occasions. The Englishman departed Ibrox just a week after the 4-1 defeat in Gorgie. The current Rangers side, who have the chance to go top of the table with a victory on Sunday after winning seven of their last nine league matches, appear a tougher nut to crack under Steven Gerrard.
“This is a different Rangers team to the one we played,” said Cowie.
“They seem to have a style and an identity under Gerrard. Warburton was very attack-minded. He played with wingers who were almost allowed to switch off and stay high when we were attacking. It was a wee bit cat and mouse over whether we should go or stay and mark them, but we just played on the front foot in those games and tried to play off them making mistakes. There seems to be a bit more structure to this Rangers team. Their wide players really work hard up and down the pitch.”
Rangers arrive in Gorgie buoyed by an impressive run in which they have claimed 16 points from their past six league matches, although this evening’s Europa League showdown with La Liga side Villarreal has obvious potential to sap energy levels.
“A lot was made about Rangers’ domestic results earlier in the season when they seemed to be doing better in the Europa League but they’re now right up there at the top of the table where they want to be.
“They’ve managed to get ahead of Hearts and now they’ve got Celtic in their sights so it’s a massive game for them. They’ll be wanting to keep their run going. But they’ll have a hard European game against Villarreal so it’s a real chance for Hearts to use that to their benefit. With the fans behind them at Tynecastle, they need to come out all guns blazing and get after Rangers. It’s got the makings of a great game.”
Hearts have slipped from first place in the Premiership to third over the past month after failing to score in any of their past five matches in all competitions. Cowie believes that a high-octane fixture like Sunday’s is just what Hearts need to snap them out of their malaise.
“It’s been a hard wee spell for Hearts where they haven’t quite been able to build on the great start they had,” said Cowie. “There’s been a lot of talk about injuries and things but that’s just part and parcel of football - you’ve just got to get on with it and try and get back to winning ways.
“Football is often all about confidence. At the start of the season, everything was going Hearts’ way but, as we all know, football is up and down all the time. It’s not always plain sailing. But this is a perfect game for Hearts to try and get back on track. Rangers at home is always a special fixture and it’s one Hearts have done well in over recent years. It’s a unique fixture from a Hearts perspective, one that definitely stood out from my time at the club.
“There’s an extra special atmosphere for that game. Those midweek games under the lights at Tynecastle two seasons ago were really special to play in – they were probably the best atmospheres I played in my time at Hearts.
“This one’s on a Sunday but it’s live on TV and every player will be desperate to be involved in it.
“Hearts have still got a lot of quality in the squad even beyond the injured players. They just need to roll the sleeves up, get together and really get after Rangers.”