FOURTEEN points separate Hearts from the rest of the Scottish Premiership, but goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald does not entertain talk of relegation. Neither do any of his team-mates. Instead, the primary focus at Riccarton is to rein others in during a Christmas period which could make or break Hearts’ campaign.
Nine league matches spread over the next six weeks indicate a critical time for a club already in intensive care. Ross County, Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Hibs are all on the fixture list between now and the end of January. All of the above are closely bunched together in the bottom half of the Premiership and, as such, are the teams Hearts must target.
Despite losing 11 goals in his last two matches – cause for depression in any goalkeeper – MacDonald is determined to stay positive amid the despondency. Saturday’s 4-1 defeat by Dundee United is still raw after the 7-0 Scottish Cup humbling against Celtic. The 14-point deficit at the bottom of the league is hard for the 27-year-old to look at, yet he is not for losing faith. Relegation remains a taboo subject for the moment.
“We haven’t even mentioned that yet,” said MacDonald. “Our first target is getting to zero points, as we’ve said. I think we can maybe reassess things after the winter period is over. There are a lot of games to come between now and the middle of January – the matches come thick and fast. We can look at things after that but we’re still within a reasonable distance.
“You want to be as close as possible come January, but, until it’s mathematically impossible for us to stay up, I don’t think the boys will think about the prospect of relegation.
“This is a really difficult time, but it’s not just difficult for me. It’s hard for everyone at the club right now. Hearts is a big club in Scottish football and, in my time here, we’ve always been involved in cup finals and finishing third or fourth in the league. We’ve been involved in European football as well.
“With administration, circumstances have changed that and it’s a different path we’re going down now. It is difficult, there’s no getting away from that, but it’s just as difficult for the fans just now coming to watch their team getting beaten. It was another great turnout by them at Tannadice. We’ve said it pretty much every week, but you can’t thank them enough. They’re still there despite how hard it’s been recently. It helps you to know everyone is in it together and going in the same direction. Hopefully our fortunes will turn soon.”
MacDonald takes every goal conceded as a personal insult. During the last two matches, he has been animated and remonstrating with team-mates on several occasions as his frustration begins to show.
“It’s been a difficult week,” he admitted. “Losing 11 goals in two games … you’re always going to be disappointed with that, no matter what goalkeeper you are. I can’t really put my finger on any that I could say I maybe could have done better with. It’s a team game and there is probably something in there that we could all do better with.
“We didn’t do ourselves any favours at the first couple of Celtic goals. They’re on fire right now, as they proved on Friday night against an experienced Motherwell team sitting high up in the league. Sometimes you do just need to hold your hands up.
“Dundee United are the form team in the league, but I thought we more than matched them for large periods of Saturday’s game.
“We’re losing silly goals at bad times. We go 1-0 down at Tannadice, then pull it back to 1-1. We more than competed in the first half, then three minutes into the second half we’re 2-1 down and chasing the game again. It’s difficult with the attacking threat Dundee United have. They were excellent on the counter-attack.
“We managed to hold out for much of the second half and we didn’t create too much, but to lose another two late goals and walk away with a 4-1 defeat is a sore one to take.”
Previously, MacDonald would probably have spent the weekend wallowing in a mixture of anger and melancholy after such a result. The arrival of his first child in August last year has put things into perspective, however.
“A lot changed when I had my daughter. When I say that, I mean changed for the better. I can now go home and she’s there and you don’t have time to think about football because you’ve got your family to look after.
“From my point of view, that’s a good thing because I was probably the world’s worst before.
“On the bus on the way home I’m thinking about the game and my own performance, because I just want to get better and stop conceding as many goals.”