There were no bullish chants of “bring on the Hibees” after this hard-fought win over St Johnstone teed them up nicely for tomorrow’s Edinburgh derby, but Hearts’ players, supporters and manager were able to depart BT Murrayfield at teatime on Saturday with confidence quietly enhanced about their prospects of taking something from Easter Road.
As was painfully evident to any of the 18,534 people who endured 90 turgid minutes inside the national rugby stadium, Craig Levein’s side – despite making it back-to-back league wins for the first time in almost nine months – are still some way from being considered the finished article. A midfield missing key men and lacking genuine authority, allied to an attack which isn’t fully firing just yet, means no-one of a maroon persuasion is of a mind to make any pre-match boasts about what they may do to their city rivals in Leith.
However, the level of collective resilience and doggedness, as Levein put it, that Hearts are now showing on a weekly basis means they are entitled to head across the city fancying their chances of at least stemming a run of three consecutive defeats at Easter Road and possibly even ending a seven-game sequence without victory over Hibs. Aside from the early-season managerial change, whereby Levein stepped back into the breach to start tidying up the mess following Ian Cathro’s ill-fated nine-month reign, the most notable factor in Hearts rediscovering a backbone has been the burgeoning centre-back partnership of Christophe Berra and John Souttar.
The captain has been a metaphorical rock since returning to his formative club from Ipswich Town in the summer. Strong, commanding and consistent, Berra continues to look like a high-end English Championship centre-back. In addition to ensuring his own game is of a standard befitting a Scotland internationalist, the 32-year-old is having a positive influence on those around him, most notably his young sidekick. Levein is now at the stage of raving about Souttar at any opportunity gets. While Berra’s dependability hasn’t come as a great surprise to the manager, he has clearly been taken aback by the rapid improvement in the 21-year-old’s defensive play since he returned from a six-month lay-off with an Achilles’ injury in the summer. A week after standing firm to repel a late Ross County onslaught in Dingwall, the pair combined to formidable effect on Saturday as they ensured Saints were restricted to clear chances throughout a match just about had the better of.
Since losing 4-1 to Celtic on the opening day of the Premiership season, Hearts have kept four clean sheets in nine matches. Although Hearts have been marginally the better team in five of the six games – indeed there is an argument to say they were also the better team in the one game they lost, at Dundee – they have played under Levein, defensive solidity has been key to a run in which they have taken 11 points from a possible 18 and climbed to fifth place, within two points of third-place Rangers.
Asked in the aftermath of the victory over Saints about how important defensive harmony had been to his team’s recent momentum building, Levein couldn’t resist – as he has done so often over the past month – taking the conversation back to Souttar. “We’ve had to defend typical Scottish attacking play, which is mainly direct football,” said the manager. “Christophe plays like a captain every single week – his leadership is evident when you watch him play. But the big thing for me is the improvement in John Souttar – he’s got everything. He’s now getting to an age where he understands how to use his strength and about the subtleties of dealing with strikers. He’s now winning 90 per cent of his aerial challenges and that was the final piece in the jigsaw for me. He’s been superb.”
While the form of the twin peaks in central defence has been the defining factor of this Hearts team, they have been aided by the presence of the steady Michael Smith in either full-back position. The Northern Irishman played in his favoured right-back role on Saturday and ensured Saints talisman Michael O’Halloran was virtually anonymous on the left flank. “Michael plays anywhere and he plays well wherever he plays,” said Levein. “He’s played right back and left back and there’s not a grumble from him. He was good again against St Johnstone.”
For all that Hearts’ defence emerged with the majority of the credit from Saturday’s victory, which ended a run of seven games without a win over Saints, that should not imply that they were put under any heavy pressure – they were simply strong, steady and assured whenever they needed to be. The hosts, if we can call them that since they were playing a tenth consecutive league match away from Tynecastle, had slightly the bulk of the possession but generally this was a contest which looked, for long periods, as if it would end goalless. After an underwhelming first half, Hearts, who replaced the ineffective Prince Buaben with teenager Harry Cochrane at the start of the second half, improved slightly after the break. A scrappy match, short on clear chances, was typified by the only goal of the game, which came in the 74th minute when Kyle Lafferty intercepted a low strike from team-mate Cochrane, spun in the box and saw his shot take a huge deflection off Joe Shaughnessy before trundling past the wrong-footed Mannus.
The impressive Cochrane, one of three teenagers to finish the game for Hearts, almost doubled their lead when he hit the post with the last kick of the game, but 2-0 would have flattered Hearts on a day when they did just enough to claim victory and move ahead of both Hibs and Saints for the first time this season. “It was a war of attrition,” said Levein. “The encouraging thing for me is that in these games in previous seasons we’ve lost. Our forward play wasn’t great, we got a bit confused at times, particularly in the first half about whether we were going long or short, and we invariably chose the wrong option, but we need to continue to be dogged.
“You can’t always guarantee playing well but even if you don’t play well, if you’re determined and you stay hard to beat, you can win. Although we didn’t play well, I thought we deserved to win because we had much more pressure and had a lot more shots than they did. I can’t remember Jon (McLaughlin) making a save.”