John Colquhoun believes Celtic’s recent frailty will count for little when they rock up at a stadium that evidently brings out the best in them.
The stuttering Premiership leaders have won only three of their last eight games in all competitions, but any notion that they will be vulnerable when they visit Hearts on Sunday is countered somewhat by their formidable recent record at Tynecastle.
Since losing 2-0 to Paulo Sergio’s Hearts team just over four years ago – Ryan Stevenson and Rudi Skacel were the scorers – Celtic have won each of their last seven games in Gorgie by a remarkable aggregate score of 26-2. Colquhoun, who played for both sides, feels the sense of occasion generated when the two sides collide at a frenzied Tynecastle is a big factor in the Parkhead side’s recent prosperity away to the Jambos.
“Celtic enjoy coming here,” said Colquhoun, speaking from inside the stadium as he was unveiled as an ambassador for Hearts Youth Development Committee. “Any player enjoys coming and playing in an amazing atmosphere. And until they quieten the crowd down here, it’s always an amazing atmosphere.
“Most foreign players like going and experiencing different grounds. This one, because it is full, is the best atmosphere in Scotland now. When Celtic Park is full on European nights, it is the best atmosphere in world football. Domestically, this [Tynecastle] is the best atmosphere for the big games. Celtic will rise to it.
“They will enjoy it in the same way that when certain clubs come to Celtic Park in the European games, they respond to it. That’s what good players do. They look forward to it.”
Colquhoun explained that it is difficult being a Hearts player at home to Celtic because a balance has to be struck between sticking to a gameplan while also satisfying the crowd’s demands for high-tempo, off-the-leash attacking football. “If you go at Celtic, I think you get beat,” he said. “They will just pick you off and find ways through you. But it’s really difficult – and I experienced this – if you’re at Hearts to sit in at Tynecastle because that’s just not what the fans want. It’s okay having a game plan. I don’t know if Robbie is saying let’s sit in deep, wait for them to come and we’ll try and hit them on the break. But if you’ve got three quarters or nine-tenths of the crowd willing you to go forward … I’ve experienced it myself in European games. [Former Hearts manager] Alex MacDonald would be saying ‘just sit in for the first 20 minutes’, but then the crowd get behind you and all of a sudden we’re off. Human nature makes it difficult to counter those feelings.”
Colquhoun has a firm grasp of the inner-workings at Tynecastle as he is a close friend of Craig Levein, Hearts’ director of football. He has enjoyed witnessing how his former team-mate, aided by head coach Robbie Neilson, has gone about hauling the club from the Championship to third place in the Premiership in just 19 months.
“Craig’s done a terrific job,” said the 52-year-old. “The whole infrastructure has been overhauled and been made very robust. I know the relationship between Robbie and Craig is exactly right. He’s got influence when Robbie wants him to have influence and he’s a good bridge between Robbie and Ann Budge and the rest of the board. He brings a wealth of experience to it. I think the director of football role is a really important position in football. However you dress it up, you’ve got to have someone who knows the game working between the coach or manager and the board. The game’s just too big now – there are too many demands on a manager’s time for him to do everything the way Sir Alex Ferguson did. Those days are gone and most clubs will move towards the Hearts model in the next ten years.”
Colquhoun is confident that Levein, the former Scotland manager, is committed to Hearts for the long haul. “I think Craig loves his job,” he said. “You’d have to ask him if he could be tempted back into management but I wouldn’t think so.”
Colquhoun believes Levein produced a masterstroke when he appointed Neilson as head coach, but he was left flabbergasted when the 35-year-old started to come under fire during the club’s mini-September slump. “I was having arguments with a lot of Hearts-supporting friends earlier in the season,” he said. “Robbie lost three games earlier in the season and he got questioned by a lot of people that should have known better. They soon forgot the whole vibe of last year when everyone was saying ‘we don’t care what division we’re in as long as we’ve got a club to support’. Hearts won their first five games in the Premiership, then lost three and all of a sudden it was a case of ‘Robbie’s showing his inexperience and we need to consider … The only thing you need to consider at that point is that you have a young manager who has come through and done an unbelievable job last year. Until then he had no experience of having to deal with things going wrong.
“When things did go wrong [in September], that’s when Craig will have helped him. He would have had a big influence then in steadying the ship and making sure Robbie was protected. Those were important times for Robbie, but he came through them and then went on another long unbeaten run. It’s a learning curve for Robbie, but I’m really impressed with his work ethic and his thought processes. Having Craig here helps him. They’ve got a nice set-up.”