‘Tis the season of goodwill, of festive gifts and spreading Christmas cheer. Unless you happen to be a Hearts defender or goalkeeper.
Meanness abounds at the moment with no goals conceded in the Edinburgh club’s last four games, and just two given away in the last seven.
It is an ideal backdrop for tomorrow’s meeting with Hibs, who haven’t lost in the last eight Edinburgh derbies.
Saturday’s goalless draw with St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park was the latest instalment in this miserly sequence. Not a single present was given out to anyone in the Ladbrokes Premiership during the lead-up to Christmas. Hearts have now gone six hours and 20 minutes of football without losing a goal. Hamilton’s Xavier Tomas was the last to receive any kind of generosity way back on December 2, and remains the only player to breach the frugal Hearts rearguard so far this month.
The mean machine kicked into action again in Perth, with goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin playing the role of chief Christmas Scrooge. He denied St Johnstone’s Joe Shaughnessy in the first half and substitute David Wotherspoon in the second. Both were vital saves as Hearts extended their unbeaten run to seven matches despite seeing teenager Harry Cochrane sent off with 12 minutes left.
However, the shotstopper knows how fickle top-level sport can be. He warned his colleagues that the recent prosperity at Tynecastle – which peaked with the 4-0 defeat of Celtic ten days ago – will count for little if they don’t beat Hibs.
“All of this will pale into insignificance if don’t put in a good performance and get a win against Hibs. The fans are crying out for that,” said McLaughlin. “Derbies haven’t been in their favour for a while now and they really want those bragging rights going into the new year.
“It’s a nice little run we’ve got going. In this entire unbeaten run, there have only been two goals conceded. Defensively, we’re getting things right and we have been getting goals at the other end. Saturday was a very tough game and we knew it would be tight fixture after playing them at Murrayfield. It was always going to be the same with the conditions, the surroundings, and then going down to ten men. We’re happy but it’s a sign of things that the manager is unhappy we haven’t taken all three points.
“You can’t be a team that leaks goals and is weak at the back because it gives you too much a mountain to climb. You need to get clean sheets at this level if you want to be successful. At my previous clubs, that’s always been how we’ve got our success. We’ve kept a lot of clean sheets, been hard to break down and then been ruthless at the other end. That’s what we’ve been doing for this last month.”
Cochrane was dismissed for two yellow cards – shirt-pulling and then a late challenge on Blair Alston. He slid in to block Alston’s clearance and, although there was little contact, referee Kevin Clancy issued a second yellow card followed by a red. That leaves the 16-year-old suspended tomorrow.
With just 12 minutes to go, there was no way Hearts were willing to leave McDiarmid Park with anything less than a point. McLaughlin revealed how their recent momentum was an incentive at a difficult away venue where the club haven’t won a league fixture for seven years. “A run gives you something to build on. Every time you play, can you build on it? You get that incentive. With the greatest of respect, going to Perth after that Celtic game it’s difficult to get up for it in the same way. It doesn’t come naturally. Having an unbeaten run, a winning run and a clean sheet record give you that incentive.
“The coaching staff knew this game was going to be difficult, coming in between Celtic and Hibs. It wasn’t going to have the same billing, no matter who we played after Celtic and with Hibs coming up. We got a result and a clean sheet to take into tomorrow’s game.”
McLaughlin was born in Edinburgh and has plenty family in the Capital but has spent virtually all of his life abroad and in England.
“The family is split but the majority is over on the Hibees’ side,” he admitted. “A few of them will be there not supporting me too much, as they were at Easter Road last time. There are a few Hearts supporters in the family as well so we’ve had good support from them. There haven’t been so many texts from the other side of the family, so hopefully we can keep them quiet tomorrow.”
Growing up, the family interest in Hibs was something he was well aware of. “It was more the Hibs side. I certainly wasn’t an avid supporter and I didn’t go there to watch any games. I’ve now been to Easter Road and played at Tynecastle so tomorrow will be another special occasion for the family.
“It always gives it that bit extra. That’s what the fans experience. They’ll have mates at work and people in their own families who are divided and they want the bragging rights. They want to walk in the room after the game with their head held high and give a little bit to others rather than having to face the music themselves. It’s the same for me. I want to be able to make sure there’s no abuse coming my way or cheeky text messages after the game.”
McLaughlin is confident that a repeat of the performance which overpowered Celtic will see Hearts reclaim those bragging rights.
“It puts an extra sparkle on the game. People will be looking at what we can do when we put in 100 per cent and our performance comes together. That’s what we did against Celtic,” he said. “It was an incredible result and we’ve got to find a way to replicate that. Against Hibs last time, we didn’t turn up and they did. They put in a really good performance in front of their fans and, now we’re in a really good run of form, we have to put in our best performance like we did against Celtic. That will get us a result, for sure. We managed to close that points gap on Hibs a while ago. We’ve picked up a lot of points and now, if we get a result, there will be almost nothing between us going into the new year.
“For all the negative coverage that’s come our way, and the positives for them, if we can go into the new year having levelled that off then it’s a great start to 2018.”