Jimmy Dunne is adamant Hearts’ young defence is adequately equipped to handle big occasions like tomorrow’s showdown with Rangers at Ibrox.
The table-topping Tynecastle side face their most formidable test since losing captain Christophe Berra to long-term injury in the August victory over champions Celtic.
Hearts have won six of their seven matches in the absence of their defensive linchpin and have generally continued to look solid even though their back four has consisted of a 22-year-old (John Souttar), a 21-year-old (Demetri Mitchell) and a 20-year-old (Dunne).
Tomorrow’s trip to Ibrox - where Rangers haven’t lost all season - represents a step up in demands for Craig Levein’s relatively youthful backline.
“In terms of age, it’s a young defence but John Souttar is experienced,” said Dunne, the on-loan Burnley defender. “To say he knows what he’s doing is an understatement because he’s played well over 100 games at this level. His age doesn’t reflect how experienced he is so when I play with him I feel like I’m playing with an experienced player. Demi’s been here last season and is fairly experienced, and Michael Smith at right-back is very experienced. Me, Demi and John are young but I think we have a lot of experience and know what it takes to keep clean sheets.”
The influence of Aaron Hughes and Berra continues to aid the younger defenders at Hearts even though the veteran duo haven’t been on the pitch since August.
“I’m vocal on the pitch,” said Dunne. “I’m loud and always try and get players in the right positions. But what I have to do is take the opportunity to learn from the experienced ones around me because that’s where I’m going to get my education.
“I’m lucky enough to have Christophe and Hughesy in the changing room who I can ask for advice because they’ve had unbelievable careers. If I can learn off them, that can only improve me. You can ask them for advice all the time. Christophe is often in the changing room on matchdays so at half-time and before the game he’s helping me with my position on the pitch in relation to what he sees from the side, so that’s a great help. He’s played against a lot of these players before so he knows who I’m up against. I’m lucky to have him to help me out. He’s there at half-time, he’s still incredibly involved. He wants to help the team.”
Since being recruited to replace Berra in August, Dunne has slotted in seamlessly. He is unfazed by the possibility of the captain ousting him from the team when he returns in a couple of months.
“It’s been a smooth transition,” he said. “Every game has been tough but it’s going to be like that. I’m just concentrating on game by game. I know I’m needed now and I need to play now. I’m not looking too far ahead. My next job is Rangers away and we need a good team performance.”
More than 50,000 people are expected at Ibrox as Rangers, who have been formidable at home this season, bid to inflict a first defeat of the season on rampant Hearts.
Dunne billed tomorrow’s match as the biggest of his career to date.
“In League Two I played in a lot of big games on loan at Accrington when we were trying to win the title last season,” he said. “There were 30,000 people at Coventry, about 15,000 at Luton when I played against Olly Lee. They were very important games but I don’t think I’ve played in any games of the magnitude that Ibrox or Parkhead will bring.
“I’ve grown up watching games there on television and I’ve always been blown away by it so I feel very lucky to be involved in a big game at Ibrox this weekend.
“This is what it’s all about. Games like this, everyone will be really excited to watch it. It’s a huge occasion in front of thousands of people.
“One thing we won’t do is let the occasion get the better of us. We just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing all season, doing the basics well and I think we’ll be alright. I don’t think I’ll even hear the noise. I’ll play the game and then when I watch it back later I’ll probably think ‘wow, I can’t believe we went through that’ but for me, when it’s game time, it’s game time.”
Although Hearts are unbeaten in 13 competitive matches this season, Dunne knows tomorrow’s match is viewed by many as an acid test of their credentials.
“I think we’ve made a huge statement already,” he said. “One or two wins on the trot could be classed as lucky but we’ve gone a long way now and we’re sitting pretty. We need to continue that and keep proving people wrong and making statements. A great way to do that would be to win this weekend.”