Construct the platform and build on it. Football success is about setting solid foundations and going from there, a mantra currently very popular at Hearts.
Dozens of players and coaches have passed through Riccarton in recent seasons. With Craig Levein 18 months into a managerial stint and the squad overhauled last summer, blocks are fitting together in the club’s long-term plan.
Last week’s winter training camp in Spain offered time to reflect. Stability off the field has been constant since Ann Budge helped Hearts out of administration in 2014. On the pitch, the last two years have been frustrating. Nonetheless, the mood at Hacienda Del Alamo last week was one of confidence that Hearts are building momentum to finish the season strongly.
Key players are returning from injury and the squad is strengthened with the signings of striker David Vanecek and defender Conor Shaughnessy. A depressing sequence of one win in ten games was banished before the winter shutdown with victories over Hamilton and, most notably, city rivals Hibs at Easter Road.
“It was a great way to sign off. If it had been the other way around we’d have been hurting for a while,” admitted Christophe Berra, captain at Tynecastle Park. “It was our first win there in four-and-a-half years. We managed to grind it out and Olly Lee scored a great goal. If we have aspirations to get up to the top of the league and in the European places, you have to win at your rivals away from home. We can’t always rely on winning at Tynecastle.
“You get highs and lows and it’s how you deal with it. I have been in the game a long time. You don’t get carried away when it’s going well and you don’t get too low when it’s not. At Hearts, we are trying to be a consistent team and we’re trying to build a squad. The week in Spain was the first time the manager had to get his [new] players in. Hopefully the core of this squad can stay together for the next two or three seasons and we can build something good.”
The tangible evidence of success, of course, is silverware. Hearts’ trophy cabinet has not been supplemented since a rather memorable Scottish Cup win back in 2012. This Sunday, they re-enter that very competition when Livingston arrive in Gorgie in the fourth round. Except it is no ordinary cup tie.
Livingston’s 5-0 demolition of Hearts last month at the Tony Macaroni Arena left the Tynecastle side looking flatter than overcooked pasta. It also adds extra connotations to this weekend’s meeting. The hosts will rightly want revenge for the nadir of their season to date.
“We know how difficult it is going to be,” said Berra. “Livingston had a great first half of the season. We know we let ourselves down when we went there. We managed to bounce back by going to Easter Road and winning there, but it’s a night we won’t forget.
“As captain of the club and someone who comes from Edinburgh, I was down and a little embarrassed. You have you own personal pride and we let people down. Sometimes that happens in football. You get hard knocks and you take them on the chin and move on.
“Nothing shocks me, really. If you don’t turn up you get punished, especially in Scotland. No matter what team you are playing, they’re always going to give 100 per cent. If you don’t match that and have the right attitude, you are in for a long day.
“We do have good individual players but in any sport you have to do the basics first and earn the right to win. This is a different game. It’s at Tynecastle. We know what we need to do to win it but we know it won’t be easy.”
The shock loss in West Lothian prompted Hearts players to abandon plan to fly to Prague the following day for a Christmas celebration. It seemed the only logical choice and earned them a slight reprieve from supporters.
“A few people came together and had that opinion. It was the right thing to do,” said Berra. “We regrouped together and we had two good results before the winter shutdown. Football goes from week to week. One minute you can be on a high and the next a low. It’s about dealing with those situations individually.
“Don’t get me wrong, if that was a normal nine-to-five job and you had a bad day you could still go out. But we have that added responsibility. We were representing the club. The boys were hurting and they wouldn’t have enjoyed themselves. People would have been watching and we wouldn’t have been able to relax. We just wanted to get back on the training pitch and get back playing again.”
They are now feeling much better collectively, helped by the much-anticipated arrival of Vanecek on a pre-contract agreement. The Czech forward donned a maroon shirt for the first time on Friday at Campoamor Golf Resort as Hearts lost 1-0 in a friendly against the Belgian club Lokere.
“Scottish football is going to be different for him, it’s going to be a lot more high tempo,” Berra pointed out. “There were no points at stake against Lokeren. It was a different mindset and you try things you maybe wouldn’t do in a league match. But the boys worked hard and put a shift in and we’ll use those minutes to build and come back fresh for the second half of the season.”