Keeping perspective is vital for all concerned with Hearts right now. Their situation is recoverable, for they remain in the Ladbrokes Premiership’s top six despite three successive defeats. No-one should dismiss a run of three consecutive losses as irrelevant, however.
Losing at home to Kilmarnock – albeit at BT Murrayfield rather than Tynecastle – was a sore result for manager Craig Levein, players and fans. That it came on the back of defeats by Hibs and Rangers heightens the sense of decline, abetted by a performance which, in parts, was quite underwhelming.
The home fans who were jeering at full-time no doubt agreed. Hearts now head back to Tynecastle and must hope to address the situation with the benefit of proper home comforts. Murrayfield has served its purpose, but most associated with the club cannot wait to return to familiar surroundings.
There, quite simply, they must gain momentum, starting on Sunday week against Partick Thistle. Injured players returning will doubtless help the recovery process. The biggest thing needed is an improvement in performance, especially on yesterday’s dire first half.
“My first and overriding thought is disappointment because we didn’t win the match. We were really poor in the first half. We created our own problems by being too negative and going back the way when we had opportunities to go forward,” explained Levein. “The crowd were getting a bit anxious about that, and rightly so. The second half was a hell of a lot better.”
Kris Boyd ran in behind a disjointed looking defence to open the scoring on 31 minutes. He celebrated with an imaginary stomach gesture to the home fans on the far side who, presumably, had been taunting him about his weight.
Kilmarnock thoroughly merited their interval lead and could have been further ahead, although Esmael Goncalves had struck the post for the hosts. He hit the goalframe again before finally restoring parity with a wonderful equaliser which soared high into the top corner of Jamie MacDonald’s net. Goncalves ought to have put Hearts ahead seconds before the game’s decisive goal. MacDonald emerged one-on-one to block his shot from substitute Cole Stockton’s through pass. Killie, being managed for the fourth game by the increasingly impressive Steve Clarke, then scarpered forward and scored the winner.
A brilliant turn and finish by substitute Adam Frizzell consigned Hearts to another loss and left the 1200 visiting fans chanting Clarke’s name. “One scenario I didn’t envisage was us losing once we got back into the game. I thought we were in the ascendancy for a long period of time so I didn’t expect us to lose the match,” conceded Levein.
“We had a few chances and didn’t take them. It’s sod’s law, isn’t it? We have a great opportunity and then they go straight up the park and score a goal. The opportunity arose, we didn’t take it, we then lost a goal. We’ve been here before. It’s a time for just sticking together, working hard and getting over this problem.”
Levein is understandably eager to return to Tynecastle in front of a plush new main stand. He also expects Aaron Hughes, Arnaud Djoum, Prince Buaben and possibly even Jamie Walker back from injury by then. Problems don’t solve themselves, though.
“If we play like we did in the first half, it doesn’t matter where we go,” he admitted in reference to being better at Tynecastle. “We’ll get at least four players back for the next match. The midfield has been the major concern so that will help the situation. Some of the players missing are starting players so that will help us.
“Getting back to Tynecastle will enable us to feel a wee bit of home comfort. We haven’t felt that because of all the away matches. It just feel better there. It’s where we’re used to playing and historically we pick up most of our points there.
“It’s like going home at night, walking in the front door and thinking: ‘Ah, this feels good.’ That’s what Tynecastle feels like. You feel more comfortable in your own environment, don’t you? We haven’t had that. We’re at the point where we’re nearly there. Mind you, as I said, it won’t make any difference if we play like we did in the first half.”
Hughes – out with a calf problem since September – could play in the second leg of Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifying play-off against Switzerland this week. “He’s not playing on Thursday. He’ll see how he is for the Sunday,” said Levein.
“I was trying to push him to play against Kilmarnock but he’s only had two full days’ training. The medical advice is between seven and ten days before he goes back in. That’ll take him to round about that second Northern Ireland game. In some ways, it could be good for us [if he plays in that tie] because it gets him back in and gets him a game before we play the following week.”
Levein handed 18-year-old centre-back Daniel Baur his debut at left-back in the hope of resolving what has become a problem area in his team. Polish defender Rafal Grzelak was not in the squad. Neither was 16-year-old midfielder Harry Cochrane.
“I felt the last match [against Rangers] was one too much for Harry,” said Levein. “It will be great for him, the fact he’s had some first-team experience a year or two ahead of when he would normally have got it. That can only do him good. Him and a few others I really like and I think they will become regular starters in our first team. They will make their way into the team in the fullness of time.”
Clarke felt Kilmarnock might have won more convincingly. “It was a good performance. We just about deserved the three points,” he said, having lost to Hibs and drawn away to Celtic and Rangers in his first three matches in charge.
“I think we proved at Ibrox and Celtic Park that we have character and we showed it again today. I think it was a game we should maybe have a won a bit more comfortably, but we’ll take the win. It was a crucial save from Jamie MacDonald just before we scored the winner. That’s why you have goalkeepers. If they make those saves, it’s worth three points to you, so well done to Jamie.
“Since I came in, the players have responded really well. They’ve taken on board the simple little things. We haven’t had a bad performance since I came in. That result today was the just reward for the previous three performances without a win.”