Tynecastle Park became Hearts’ fortress again last season after a brief stopover at Murrayfield. They lost only once at their spiritual home throughout the campaign, which was against today’s visitors, Celtic.
Players, coaching staff and fans are reluctant to get carried away ahead of this season’s first home league fixture. They talk in whispers about a resurgence after an extensive summer recruitment drive and 14 goals scored in their last three games – including Betfred Cup ties.
The Premiership champions are in town this lunchtime and Hearts feel they might finally be on the up after two seasons of mediocrity. “I think so. It has been a tough couple of years for everyone at the club but we are feeling positive now and hopefully that is us over that hill,” said defender John Souttar.
“That’s down to the gaffer [Craig Levein] as well. He has made us harder to beat since he came in. I do think we have a strong mentality and we will need that. It will be tested but so far it has been good.”
Tynecastle’s new £1million hybrid playing surface is a monumental help to the players. “The pitch is brilliant,” continued Souttar. “The difference compared to last year is exceptional. Last year we were slipping all over the place and you couldn’t get your footing but this year it is unbelievable so there can be no excuses after the game. There were a few last year but there will be none on our part this year.”
The new recruits, all 13 of them, will experience their first high-octane Tynecastle occasion today. Some will be on the pitch, others on the bench and the rest in the stand.
“You have just got to enjoy it,” advised Souttar. “We are at a stage now where, when we are playing at Tynecastle, we are always going to fancy ourselves.
“We did towards the end of last season and we were only beaten the once. That was by Celtic and even then we gave them a good game, so we are going to go out there full of optimism and hopefully that will carry on through the game.
“The squad is a lot more experienced than it was last year and there are a lot more bodies. We are in a better position. This is the first time in a long time that there has been so much optimism going into the season.”
Hearts’ Premiership campaign began with a convincing 4-1 win at Hamilton last weekend. Celtic is a far more taxing assignment. Levein wants his team to adopt the same approach as they did last December, when Celtic’s 69-game unbeaten domestic run fell in a 4-0 defeat at Tynecastle.
“Well, I wasn’t playing in that one, so maybe if the gaffer leaves me out then maybe,” joked Souttar when asked about the chances of a repeat scoreline. “Christophe [Berra] likes to remind me of that.” The centre-back will definitely be playing this afternoon in a game where Hearts will start full of energy.
“Yeah, because we caused them problems doing that last year. Tynecastle is never an easy place to come if we start well and the fans are right behind us,” said Souttar.
“If we can get them on side then it is not an easy place for anyone to play. We saw that last year with Celtic, who were making mistakes that they wouldn’t have made at home so it was an effective way to play and I don’t see why we would change that this time.”
Celtic were in European action in midweek and Hearts will look to capitalise on any fatigue from their 1-1 Champions League qualifying draw with AEK Athens.
“Hopefully, but they have a massive squad and a lot of money and they have been doing this for years,” explained Souttar, mindful of the options available to Brendan Rodgers.
“They will be prepared for these sort of things but if there is ever a good time to play them then this is probably it.”