A year ago today, Hearts were held to a goalless draw at home to Hibs in the Scottish Cup fifth round, effectively kicking off a season-ending 16-game run in which they would win only twice and lose ten times under Ian Cathro.
While the Tynecastle side spent the first half of 2017 in a spiral of decline and the second half of the year trying to break free from it, 2018 looks set to bring a much-needed period of ascendancy.
Saturday’s emphatic 3-0 vanquishing of St Johnstone, which took them into the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup for the first time since 2012, served as further evidence that Hearts are heading in the right direction with Craig Levein as manager. After an opening three months to his reign which brought just three wins from 12 games amid a gruelling period of post-Cathro ship-steadying, Levein’s tenure has gradually ignited over the past two months, with seven wins and ten clean sheets in the last 12 matches.
While Hearts’ ability to keep the ball out of the net has been clear for most of the season, as highlighted by a run of 15 clean sheets in 27 matches since they lost 4-1 at Celtic Park on the opening day of the Premiership campaign, concerns have lingered until recently about their style of play and general lack of goals.
Although still some way short of the finished article as an attacking force, it is clear that their return to the redeveloped Tynecastle in late November, plus some shrewd business in the January transfer window, has allowed them to progress from merely being a team which was hard to beat to now being a side which is hard to stop. With Dundee, Celtic and Hamilton Accies having already been swatted aside in fairly convincing fashion this winter, St Johnstone became the latest side to feel the power of this improving Hearts team once they get into their stride.
Without truly excelling – they didn’t have to since Saints were so meek for much of the match – Hearts looked sure-footed and largely in control against a side who had made life difficult for them in the Premiership fixture a week previously. Notably, they did so with some regular starters on the bench and Don Cowie, Steven Naismith and Harry Cochrane missing through injury.
“I’m starting to feel good about what’s on the bench and the options we have,” said Levein. “Once we get Don, Naisy and Harry back, it’ll be even better for us.”
The manager had made four changes to the side that started the 1-0 league win over Saints a week previously, with David Milinkovic, Danny Amankwaa and Connor Randall dropping to the bench for a rest, and Naismith missing out through injury. Michael Smith, Aaron Hughes, Anthony McDonald and Ross Callachan all came into the starting line-up for a match which began with both sides effectively set up in 3-6-1 formation.
Predictably enough with so many players deployed in midfield, the first half was tight and short of clear chances. Hearts shaded it and claimed the initiative in the eighth minute when top scorer Kyle Lafferty composed himself and fired home a clinical, angled finish from inside the box after Arnaud Djoum, who had his best game of the season according to Levein, seized on a loose Saints throw-in and headed the ball forward for his Northern Irish team-mate, who still had plenty work to do.
“It was a fantastic finish,” said Levein. “It was a ridiculously tight angle on his left side. It’s not the first time he’s scored a goal like that. Kyle was really good.”
The scoreline and the visitors’ general lack of threat prompted Saints manager Tommy Wright to take off veteran midfielder Chris Millar in order to get a second striker, Denny Johnstone, on to the pitch after just 26 minutes. Millar was visibly irate at the ignominy of being sacrificed so early, and the travelling supporters weren’t slow to make their feelings known towards their manager. Wright’s cause wasn’t helped nine minutes after the break when Hearts scored their second after counter-attacking from a St Johnstone corner. Djoum collected possession from Joaquim Adao deep inside his own half, powered up the right and played a delightful square pass into the path of the marauding left-wing-back Demetri Mitchell, who took a touch before pinging a sensational left-footed shot high beyond Alan Mannus and into the net from 23 yards out.
“I was right behind it and I thought it was beautiful to watch,” said Levein. “I could tell as soon it left his foot, it was going in the top corner. The biggest thing for me was the delight on his face when he scored. Football’s a great game when you see kids doing something like that and feeling so good about themselves.”
Lafferty added Hearts’ third goal with his 14th of the season from close range when he converted Smith’s perfect low delivery from the right in the 58th minute. It meant the Tynecastle side, who almost added to their lead when substitute Randall had a shot blocked on the line by Scott Tanser, were able to see out victory in relative comfort, aside from some hefty challenges from Saints players which could easily have resulted in at least one red card. Christophe Berra was particularly irate after being caught by Chris Kane, and the Hearts skipper, hopping around in an understandable rage in front of the dugouts, turned the air blue with a rant at both Kane and Wright after the Saints striker had escaped with a booking. Nonetheless, Levein was pleased with how Hearts stood up to the physical challenge to make it four games unbeaten against the Perth side, who had previously been viewed as their bogey team.
“I thought it was naughty,” the manager said of Kane’s challenge. “It was late, and they had about four or five of those. We used to succumb to teams being physical and seeing if we’re mentally prepared to battle to win a match. We’re a different team now – we’re not soft. If teams put the ball on top of us, we deal with it. We stand up to being challenged, and St Johnstone found that out.”
The last time Hearts removed St Johnstone from the Scottish Cup at the last-16 stage, they went on to win it in 2012. Optimism is growing by the week around this steadily-improving team.