Kenilworth Road’s executive suites better be open for business early this Saturday.
Sunderland are the visitors, and their goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin will be hunting a television screen deep within the ground’s main stand to watch former club Hearts against Celtic.
He hopes to see another performance laced with passion and desire to mirror the 4-0 win he played in last December. Hearts’ approach that day caught Celtic off guard and McLaughlin feels a repeat is the only way of overcoming the reigning Scottish champions again.
It is only a few weeks since the keeper left Edinburgh to continue his career in England’s League One. Sunderland started their campaign with a last-minute winner to beat Charlton at home last week and now travel to Luton. McLaughlin will make time during pre-match preparations to catch some of the high-octane lunchtime encounter from Tynecastle Park.
He remains an avid Hearts follower after a year-long stay there in which he set a new club record of eight consecutive clean sheets. That period included the remarkable 4-0 triumph over Celtic to end the Glasgow club’s 69-game unbeaten domestic run. No-one who witnessed it will forget it, and McLaughlin certainly hasn’t.
It is a new-look Hearts team meeting Brendan Rodgers’ side this weekend after 13 summer signings. McLaughlin stressed that another victory will very much depend on them re-enacting the approach from last year - stopping Celtic’s rhythm using pure energy and aggression.
“I think it was a little bit of catching Celtic on a bit of a bad day. They had that run going and maybe felt comfortable. They had a gameplan they thought would work and we were just very positive against them,” said McLaughlin, speaking exclusively to the Evening News from Sunderland’s training ground.
“The gaffer and Austin came up with a gameplan to get after them straight away, not let them settle or play their football. At Tynecastle, on that pitch, we were able to do that.
“It’s very difficult to stop Celtic playing like we managed to do. If you can get on top of them early and get those goals like we did to put them under pressure, then it gives you something to build on.
“It will be very tough for Hearts generally on Sunday but if they put in a similar performance to last November, then we’ll see where it takes them.
“You can come up with all the gameplans you like, but on the day it needs a bit of magic to fall your way. We had that last time and hopefully they get a bit of that this time as well. I’ll be watching with a keen eye and see how they get on.”
Lynden Gooch struck a decisive injury-time goal as Sunderland came from behind to beat Charlton 2-1 on Saturday. One of the first results McLaughlin checked afterwards was how Hearts fared in their opening league fixture at Hamilton. He was delighted to see a 4-1 scoreline in favour of the visitors, who had also been 1-0 down in the game.
“It was a great start for Hearts on Saturday and I spoke to a couple of the boys on Sunday. I still keep in touch with some of them. They were talking about the positive feeling around the camp and they look like they’ve got some good talent going forward,” said the 30-year-old.
“Hopefully they will be able to score quite a few this season, which will improve results - especially against the big guns in the league.”
He is not entirely disconnected from Hearts in the north east of England. Manager Jack Ross was previously a Riccarton youth coach, while centre-back Alim Ozturk is a former Tynecastle captain who specialises in last-gasp goals himself.
“I was speaking to John [Souttar] and Don [Cowie] who knew Alim and played with him at Hearts,” revealed McLaughlin, who will hope to retain his place in the Scotland squad for next month’s games against Belgium and Albania.
“They were telling me all about him. He is a good guy and he has settled in well himself. Everybody is trying to find their feet and get used to playing with each other. It will take a bit of time.”
Ross has had to undertake a huge overhaul after Sunderland suffered successive relegations to go from England’s Premier League to the third tier in just over a year. Former Hibs midfielder Dylan McGeouch is another new arrival, whilst high earners John O’Shea and Fabio Borini were shipped out after last season.
“The gaffer has brought in some good characters. He tried to get not only talented players but the right kind of players for a club that needs to get turned around quickly,” explained McLaughlin.
“There has been a bit of a cleanse over the summer at the club to try and get rid of all that negativity from what’s gone before. They’ve gone for a clean start from the beginning, which is why they made the changes.
“It’s been great so far. This is a massive football club and a great club to be a part of. Obviously they have had their struggles over the last couple of years. Now that the gaffer and all his new staff and new players are in place, it’s nice to be joining on a clean slate for everybody. It’s all been really positive so far.
“To get the win on Saturday the way we did was big for us. You could see it was important for the fans as well. We had a massive crowd turnout who want to see you do well. It was good for them to get that reward.”