On and off the park, Ian Cathro’s Tynecastle bow couldn’t have been any more of a contrast to Robbie Neilson’s farewell night a mere two-and-a-half weeks earlier.
While the renowned old stadium had an inspiring effect as Hearts played in an aggressive manner and ripped Rangers to shreds to move into second place in the Premiership on the last day of November, Saturday’s clash with Partick Thistle provided an example of how the Gorgie ground can have an inhibiting impact when the crowd are not in full-on support mode.
The Hearts fans went from apathetic in the first half to apoplectic in the second as Cathro’s team struggled to ignite against the league’s bottom side and finished the weekend seven points adrift of the resurgent Ibrox outfit in the battle to finish runner-up to Celtic.
Aside from the fact he has inherited a high-quality young goalkeeper in the shape of the point-salvaging Jack Hamilton, the main source of consolation the new head coach could derive from Saturday’s scrambled draw was that surely the only way is up from here on in.
Unrest from the stands at Tynecastle is nothing new, of course, but even at the height of the chaos in the Vladimir Romanov era, it is hard to recall any of Cathro’s predecessors enduring such a harsh home debut. Any illusions the 30-year-old might have had about the Hearts support representing a 12th man in every home game were instantly dispelled as a sense of waiting-to-be-entertained silence gave way to unnerving, sarcastic cheers when Hamilton eventually made a successful pass to Liam Smith at the third attempt.
Bjorn Johnsen’s 18th-minute headed opener from the first clear chance of the match lifted the mood slightly and a rally just before half-time, in which Arnaud Djoum was denied by Tomas Cerny and Igor Rossi headed against the crossbar, ensured a sense of relative contentment at the break.
All was to unravel, however, as the introduction of the much-maligned Conor Sammon in place of the injured Prince Buaben, allied to the concession of an equaliser to Partick Thistle midfielder Sean Welsh just two minutes after the restart, set the tone for an unedifying half of football from a Hearts perspective.
A general sense of angst, punctuated by occasional booing, provided the backdrop for a desperate performance in which the hosts were unable to snap out of this vicious circle and ended up fortunate to escape with a point. “It’s a disappointing result, and your natural feelings after that aren’t great, but that [reaction] is part of the game,” said Cathro. “I’ve got no major issue with it. We all feel the same reaction, but I can’t boo because I’ve got to try and find the solution. The players, staff and fans all feel the same thing but we just have to stay together.”
Alan Archibald, the Thistle manager, explained afterwards that part of his plan was to frustrate the Hearts supporters and ultimately ensure they started to unsettle their own team. Cathro was in no mood to be cowed by the reaction of the crowd and insisted he will embrace the task of leading a club where expectations will always be set high. Asked if he was surprised by the booing at full-time, he said: “No, because it’s a natural human reaction. We didn’t get what we wanted so we’re not happy. I didn’t get what I wanted so I’m not happy. The players didn’t get what they wanted and they’re not happy. It was just a voicing of that, and that’s normal. If we reach a point down the line where we draw games at home and everybody’s fine with it, that’d be more upsetting. I don’t want us to ever be fine with that. We’re not fine with this. What do we do about it? We finish this and we go back through the game and we work and we work and we work.”
After defeat away to Rangers in his opening match in charge, Cathro tweaked things slightly and started with four natural central midfielders in the team – Perry Kitchen, Djoum, Don Cowie and Buaben. This allowed Hearts to hold a good degree of control in the match, in terms of having the lion’s share of possession and restricting Partick to no first-half chances of note, but the fact Jamie Walker and Johnsen were the only naturally sparky players on the pitch meant the hosts struggled to get in behind their visitors. Johnsen’s goal came from an excellent cross from the right from Liam Smith, the young right-back filling in at left-back. But in between the goal and the aforementioned flurry just before the break, Hearts didn’t look like adding to their advantage.
“We managed to control bits of the first half and stay in the opponents’ half, and the team started to grow in those moments,” said Cathro. “But when the game’s swinging that way, you probably need to do a bit more damage than what we did.”
Hearts were made to pay for not doing the damage as Thistle came out a much-improved side in the second half and, after former Hibs youngster Welsh nodded in a cross from Ryan Edwards, the visitors seized the upper hand and should have won the game. “When we were forced to change some things, we had to play differently and that resulted in the game being very, very broken,” said Cathro. “There was a little bit of Scottish chaos, some anxiety, some nervousness, and some mistakes as well. That’s basically what the second half was and it becomes a really difficult cycle to break.”
As Hearts lost their way, anxiety levels in the stadium grew, with Sammon, as is the norm when things are not going well for the team, bearing the brunt of the ire from the stands. The Irish striker is now firmly established as persona non grata among a vocal section of the support, although it was hard not to feel sympathy given the paucity of service he received and disproportionate level of disgruntlement that now accompanies his every involvement in play which is bound to be having an unnerving and confidence-eroding effect.
Some even jeered when Johnsen and Walker, who were both toiling to make an impact in the second half, were replaced by Tony Watt and Robbie Muirhead. The inference was that they were effectively shouting for Sammon, the half-time substitute, to be substituted. Cathro tried to play it down afterwards. “Conor’s an experienced guy and a strong guy,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily feel any particularly strong reaction [towards Sammon].”
Hearts had only one chance of note after the break – an effort from Smith which fizzed just over after he had linked up with Muirhead on the left – while Thistle had five genuine close calls. In addition to Liam Lindsay sending a free header wide from a corner and Callum Booth smacking the underside of the crossbar, Hamilton had to make three excellent saves. The Scotland internationalist made two brilliant one-on-one blocks to deny Ade Azeez and Kris Doolan, and another sensational stop from Christie Elliott that bore all the hallmarks of one of his most highly-regarded predecessors, Craig Gordon. “Jack kept the team alive on at least two, perhaps three occasions,” said Cathro.
With Hearts having gone three games without a win, the head coach must now breathe new life into his team ahead of Friday’s trip to Dundee.