Combative and spirited Hearts is what Craig Levein desired and he seems well on the way to achieving his goal.
Saturday’s 2-1 win at Hamilton was hard-earned, gritty, determined, dogged. Use any adjective you like, a blind man can see Levein is restoring heart at Hearts.
Ross Callachan’s first goal for his childhood idols and Kyle Lafferty’s penalty-kick put the visitors in command inside 25 minutes at the SuperSeal Stadium. Rakish Bingham reduced the deficit on 33 minutes, knocking Hearts out of their rhythm. Just a few weeks ago, they could have capitulated and conceded a second, possibly even a third, goal.
Instead, the trademark resilience of Levein’s teams through the years kicked in to underpin the first victory of his second managerial term. Hamilton spent most of the second half camped in opposition territory but couldn’t break through to equalise. Hearts’ work rate simply didn’t let them.
Players have quickly realised they won’t play under the new manager if they don’t work tenaciously. Christophe Berra won umpteen tackles, John Souttar umpteen headers, and in goal Jon McLaughlin caught every high ball. In front of them, midfielders Callachan, substitute Prince Buaben and even Jamie Walker pressed, harried, chased and tackled like a pack of pitbulls.
Levein stood calmly in his technical area watching it all unfold. It wasn’t pretty. He said it wouldn’t be. However, it was functional, effective and heartwarming for the 2000 fans who journeyed from Edinburgh.
When Ali Crawford’s free-kick roared towards the top corner, McLaughlin sprung up to his left with a one-handed save. When Hamilton’s Darian MacKinnon got physical in midfield, so too did Walker and others. It was a sight which perhaps typified the attitude Levein demands, and is receiving.
“One thing about the gaffer is that he will take no nonsense. If anyone is not working hard then they will be sat beside him,” admitted Lafferty. “No matter who has been in charge this season, we have got a good, honest squad.
“We will work for whoever is in charge but I think everyone is doing that little bit extra now because we know we have a manager who wants us to work hard. If you are putting in a shift then you are going to be playing.
“The gaffer has managed Scotland and done well at Dundee United as well. He has come in and put down his authority quite quickly. As I say, if you work hard then you will be on the team sheet. You saw in Saturday’s performance that everyone has worked their socks off and there is no better feeling than getting three points.”
A draw against Aberdeen last weekend followed by a win at Hamilton is a solid start to Levein’s second tenure in Gorgie. His methods are getting results and his authority over players is already evident. “You look at the size of him and the way he is built! No, it’s about how he is,” smiled Lafferty.
“He’s built a team that wants to work hard. We have workers and players who can play and go and damage teams. That’s the way we have been doing things up until now. To be honest, the manager hasn’t said that much. It has been about working hard and the goals will come and the points will come.”
The Northern Irishman is prepared to put in the extra endeavour knowing he and his team will benefit. Saturday was his 30th birthday, marked with a convincing penalty to double Hearts’ advantage. Callachan had taken just three minutes to break the deadlock by converting Michael Smith’s cross, followed by an ecstatic celebration in front of the away support.
“It’s nice to score in any game but it being my birthday makes it extra special, as does the three points. I’m going to lie low,” said Lafferty, still feeling the effects of a challenge from behind by Hamilton defender Xavier Tomas. “I’ve currently got a dead bum cheek so I’ll be trying to rest. I’m getting old now.”
Ten minutes after Lafferty’s penalty, Hearts conceded a cheap goal which left Levein angry in the technical area. Rafal Grzelak, playing on the left of a back three, hesitated as a high ball dropped towards him. Former Hearts winger David Templeton – Hamilton’s best player on the day – sprinted in to chest the ball down. He entered the penalty box and crossed low for the unmarked Bingham to convert at the back post.
“I think we probably made it tougher than we should have. We were playing well and showing confidence inside the first half hour but then we gave away a silly goal. That put a bit of pressure on us and we didn’t recover well enough to get on top again,” admitted Lafferty.
“But these are the games you’ve got to win. We know that we can damage teams going forward but sometimes it’s about grinding out a result and that’s what we did.” Templeton tired and was substituted early in the second half, which helped the visitors’ cause. Might Hearts have struggled to see that game out a month ago? “Yeah, maybe. We had a tough game last week against Aberdeen, who will be right up the league again this season, and we defended well and came away with a point.
“At Ibrox we were also put under pressure and got a point. So we are getting the points where people maybe think we shouldn’t be getting them. It’s a start. Hamilton have started the season well and they are more used to the [astroturf] pitch. It’s a difficult place to come but we have come here and got three points.”
Lafferty has more to gain than most if Hearts can be successful. He is a key part of a Northern Ireland squad which has a realistic chance of qualifying for next summer’s World Cup finals in Russia. “It’s an incentive for me. That’s why I came here,” he admitted.
“I wanted to play football and the last three years at club level hadn’t really panned out the way I wanted. But I can go away with Northern Ireland, score goals, and then come back here and help the team get three points. I am in a good place at the moment. Hopefully, if I keep playing games I can get fitter and sharper and score more goals.”
Inspiring a charge into the Europa League qualifying rounds would only help. “Grinding out results, I think we’ll be up there. I think we’ll get results we need if we go in front and make it difficult for teams to break us down.
“It is going to be a long hard season. Teams will take points off each other. If we keep on going the way we are, we will be up there. I have come here expecting to be in the top six, the top four, and helping Hearts into Europe.”