The magnitude of the situation properly hits home when John Souttar puts it bluntly: “We need to be tough to beat. You might not be able to play open football if you’re going to have 14 away games.”
Fourteen away matches is effectively what Hearts are negotiating right now before they return to Tynecastle in November. Staging three “home” games at Murrayfield is hardly ideal and routine away games present their own challenges. A win at Kilmarnock followed by Saturday’s goalless draw at Ibrox proved Souttar and his colleagues have the resilience and desire to cope.
Interim head coach Jon Daly strengthened his case for getting the job permanently with a commendable result in Glasgow on the back of victory in Ayrshire. Hearts survived intense pressure from Rangers, especially in the second half, but stayed structured, disciplined and resolute. Thanks to the organisation and motivational skills of Daly, plus coaches Austin MacPhee and Liam Fox, playing on the road isn’t causing undue concern within the Edinburgh club just now.
Including Betfred Cup ties, Hearts will have played 14 fixtures at venues other than Tynecastle before their scheduled return there early in November. The stadium’s new £12million stand promises to be worth waiting for but, meantime, getting results away from familiar surroundings requires courage and doggedness. Which is exactly what they produced at Ibrox.
“You’re going to need to be resolute and hard to beat and I think that’s what we’re achieving,” said Souttar. “If you said three years ago, ‘look, 14 away games and you’ll get a new stand’, I’m sure everybody would have jumped at it. There’s no issue for us because the club pay our wages so I’m sure 14 away games is okay for us.
“Everyone’s desperate to get in the new stand. The atmosphere before was amazing. After the new stand is finished, with the height and everything, Tynecastle is going to be a cauldron to play in.
“It has been a tough start. Celtic away, Killie away on that astroturf pitch, then Rangers away. I think we’ve come through it well. We maybe wanted to play better on Saturday but we got that clean sheet. It’s a good point for us.”
Souttar came closest to breaking the deadlock in the first half at Ibrox by unleashing a vicious 30-yard drive which rebounded off the Rangers crossbar. “I thought it was in the whole way. I don’t know if the goalkeeper got a fingertip to it or not. It was probably the best strike I’ve ever hit in my life – and ever will,” he smiled.
The Scotland Under-21 defender added that he would have no problem were Daly appointed permanently ahead of other candidates like Steven Pressley and Paul Hartley. “He’s got a great relationship with the boys. Jack Hamilton had a good couple of saves but we defended well on the whole,” explained Souttar.
“We were hard to beat so Jon has made a good case for it. Everyone believes in what he’s saying. When he speaks, everyone listens. To be honest, we’re not too fussed [how long it takes]. We aren’t losing games, we’ve won and drawn so, from our point of view, there’s no rush.”
Souttar has never even been to Murrayfield. “I’m from Brechin, so it’s not rugby up there.” However, regardless of the stage, he is simply happy to feel grass under his feet again and be kicking a competitive ball. A ruptured Achilles ended last season in January but the 20-year-old has returned ahead of schedule.
His performance was a key component in an important result for Hearts. Goalkeeper Jack Hamilton was similarly impressive, with an instinctive save to deny Rangers striker Kenny Miller in the first half plus several steady catches from cross balls. Captain Christophe Berra was solid, as was full-back Michael Smith.
Souttar admitted to still being short of match practice although he is almost two months ahead of schedule. “I’m still a bit away. I shouldn’t be back till October so I’m still gaining fitness every day. That was only my second 90 minutes on Saturday.
“It’s easy to forget myself that I’m still coming back. I just have to take it easy during the week and control my training. It was a serious injury and it was career-threatening. If somebody said to me six months ago I’d be at Ibrox on Saturday, I’d have bitten their hand off. It was amazing to be out there. I never was thinking about the injury. I’ve totally forgotten about it.”
Pedro Caixinha, the Rangers manager, spoke after Saturday’s draw about Hearts showing their hosts respect by defending in numbers. He referenced Kyle Lafferty playing almost as a left-back to back up his theory.
“I am not surprised [by how defensive Hearts were], just surprised in a good way about how opponents are respecting us,” said the Portuguese. “You see a very good striker like Lafferty spends all the entire match acting more like a left-back than a left winger, so that shows the respect they show to us.”
In truth, Caixinha’s Rangers are five points behind rivals Celtic after only three matches. He may not be under serious pressure at the moment but many more results like his last two – a defeat by Hibs and draw with Hearts – will see him feel the full wrath of Ibrox fans who jeered at full-time on Saturday.
Hearts, bizarrely, seem more settled despite being without a manager. Regardless of whether Daly is asked to continue or not, the club’s Under-20 coach has proven his credentials at senior level.