Esmael Goncalves is relishing the chance to come alive for Hearts after almost three months of running himself into the ground in away matches.
The Portuguese forward has drawn praise from manager Craig Levein for the selfless work he has performed for the team during a gruelling run in which they have played eight of their nine Premiership matches on the road.
Tomorrow’s match against St Johnstone at BT Murrayfield kicks off a run in which Hearts play nine of their next ten games at home, and Goncalves believes this will significantly benefit attacking players like himself, Jamie Walker and Kyle Lafferty, who have had their offensive abilities stunted by the level of dirty work they have had to carry out in helping the team to some hard-earned points away to the likes of Kilmarnock, Rangers, Hamilton Accies, Partick Thistle and Ross County. “We want to play at home, so to play in Edinburgh in front of our fans will be nice,” Goncalves told the Evening News. “It’s difficult when you’re away because the other teams are all stronger at their own home. A lot of these games have been about fighting and running, so it is difficult for strikers.
“It is very different playing away to playing at home because when we have our fans, we are more confident and stronger. The pitch is also much better at Tynecastle or Murrayfield than at other places, so it is much easier to express ourselves when we are at home.”
Hearts sit seventh in the Premiership, but given the uniquely difficult start to the season they have faced, Goncalves is heartened by the number of points they have collected and encouraged about what the rest of the season holds once they can draw on more regular home comforts. “We didn’t do perfectly in the away games but I think we did well because we are only five points from third place,” said the 26-year-old. “Now we start to play a lot of games at home so I think we are in a good position. We have a good team with good players and when we start to play at home and build our confidence, things will be very different. Me, Jamie and Lafferty know each other well now and understand what we’re going to do. We try to find each other, when we can. When we do it, it can be amazing.”
Tomorrow’s match sparks a run of three big games in a week against Saints, Hibs and Rangers and offers Hearts the opportunity to leapfrog all three teams and move into the top four. “It is an important week for us,” said Goncalves. “If we have a good week, we can jump up the league. We have a derby which is very important for us all. It would give us a lot of confidence if we can move into the top six.”
Goncalves shone in his previous match at BT Murrayfield when Hearts were held to a goalless draw by Aberdeen despite a strong and spirited performance six weeks ago. “I enjoyed the Aberdeen game but it was disappointing that we drew because it is a game we should have won,” said the former St Mirren player. “Now we’re going to try and beat St Johnstone.”
Goncalves scored his fourth goal of the season against Ross County last weekend and his 12th in total since joining Hearts nine months ago. “I could have scored more,” he said. “As a striker, I try to score as much as I can but 12 goals is not bad since I came in. It could be better but I’m doing okay.”
Hearts’ task over the next few days is placed into context by the fact their next two opponents, St Johnstone and Hibs, both hold seven-game unbeaten runs against them. The Tynecastle side haven’t defeated Saints since a 4-3 victory on the opening day of the 2015/16 season. Even allowing for the fact the Perth side have won only one of their last six games and have lost 3-0 to both Aberdeen and Rangers in their last two outings, Levein is bracing his side for the probability that they will need to be at their best to defeat Tommy Wright’s team.
“If you take out their last two matches, then they are flying,” said the Hearts manager. “I don’t always associate St Johnstone picking up points with them necessarily playing well. One of the big things about them is their determination and their grit and their ability to win points when they are not at their best. Outside of Celtic and maybe Aberdeen, the rest of us aren’t in the luxurious position of knowing we are always going to play well and win. We will need to work as hard as we have done in any match up to now to get the points. We know that. That’s the good thing, I know that and I can impart that knowledge to the players and make sure that we don’t lose this match due to them being more diligent or working harder.”
Levein is a big admirer of Wright, who has had St Johnstone consistently in the top six since taking over in 2013. “He is fantastic,” said Levein. “St Johnstone, for me, are like Dunfermline, Falkirk, Raith Rovers and all those other clubs are languishing in lower leagues – I put that down to Tommy. The crowds at St Johnstone are on a par with the other teams I have mentioned but the fact that he is at St Johnstone means they have been in the top six year on year on year and in Europe year on year. Tommy has outdone everybody with regard to having his team playing above a level that possibly the budget would dictate.”