It says much about the strength of the team ethic generated by Craig Levein that it seems the loss of no individual can halt burgeoning Hearts.
Over the summer, three of the best players from last season – Jon McLaughlin, David Milinkovic and Kyle Lafferty – departed Tynecastle, yet still the manager was able to transform his side from mid-table plodders to marauding early-season pacesetters. Since the start of this exhilarating campaign, key men have continued to drop out of the reckoning with no notable effect on the team’s progress. Christophe Berra, Hearts’ captain and player of the year last term, has been missing since early August, while Uche Ikpeazu has been out for four of the past five matches and will now be sidelined well into the new year, along with deputy captain John Souttar following the shock injury news that emerged from the club on Thursday morning.
In addition to this influential trio, Hearts were deprived of two other guaranteed starters against Aberdeen on Saturday as right-back Michael Smith served a suspension and midfielder Peter Haring, Hearts’ main man this season aside from Steven Naismith, missed out with a muscle strain.
The fact Hearts were going in against the country’s second-best team of the last four years on the back of suffering their first defeat of the season merely heightened the sense of adversity facing them. In the eyes of many, they looked primed to be knocked off the top of the table for the first time this season. Instead, they stretched their advantage from two points to three with a victory which was based on a rampant first-half display and seen out by a ferocious spirit and will to win after the break as Aberdeen, who were completely neutralised in the first half, came on strong.
“I think most teams would let their heads go down and wouldn’t have the same attitude if they had to deal with what we have, but the lads who came in showed unbelievable character and the lads who had been in the team previously stood up again and stepped up a level,” said Jimmy Dunne.
Indeed the Irish defender “stepped up” more than most in a fiercely-contested match, played amid a frenzied Tynecastle atmosphere, which finished with 11 bookings. Just days after his 21st birthday, Dunne was effectively cast as the leader of a defence which featured a player making his first start for the club, Clevid Dikamona, and another, Marcus Godinho, making his first appearance of any kind following a six-month injury lay-off. The on-loan Burnley defender’s performance was colossal, which is just what Hearts needed in their first game of the season without either Berra or Souttar, the two pillars upon which the team’s defence has been built over the past 15 months.
“Jimmy’s uncomplicated – he just wants to do well and I thought he was excellent, he really was,” said Levein. “We had Clevid making his first start and Marcus playing his first game for six months so Jimmy, as the guy who had been playing regularly, had to be good, and he absolutely was.”
Not that the victory was built primarily on good defending. In the first half in particular, Hearts were excellent, continuing the scintillating form of their previous two home victories over St Johnstone and Motherwell. Underlining where most of the game was being played before the break, Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes afterwards pinpointed Hearts strikers Naismith, who captained the team in Souttar’s absence, and Steven MacLean as the most influential players on the pitch in the first 45 minutes. The hosts’ goals came in the closing stages of the half via Arnaud Djoum, who had his best game since his long-term injury lay-off, and a penalty from Naismith, which had been dubiously awarded for handball against Aberdeen’s Lewis Ferguson.
Even allowing for their understandable gripe about referee Kevin Clancy’s decision, Aberdeen could consider themselves fortunate only to be two down. The visitors responded positively after Niall McGinn and Scott Wright were introduced at the break and they pulled one back through a Gary Mackay-Steven penalty. In the circumstances, it would have been no surprise had Hearts wilted under the Dons’ second-half pressure. Yet even after the deflation of seeing Naismith miss another penalty which would have restored their two-goal lead, Hearts held firm, albeit aided by a sensational late save from Zdenek “Bobby” Zlamal to stop Mackay-Steven’s low shot curling in at his right-hand post.
Whether it’s Zlamal for McLaughlin, Ikpeazu for Lafferty, Dunne for Berra, or Olly Bozanic for Haring - as was the case on Saturday – Levein has generated such strength in the collective that no individual is proving irreplaceable. “Bobby didn’t have an awful lot to do but he made an unbelievable save, it was outstanding,” said Levein. “He’s made our supporters forget about Jon. No disrespect to Jon, of course, but I’ve never heard anybody mention him and Bobby’s performances this season are the reason for that.”