Comment: Inspirational new Hearts manager urgently needed to fend off growing relegation threat
In danger zone going into December, the situation at Tynecastle is becoming more concerning by the week
Worryingly for Hearts, the team that started the abject 3-0 defeat at Kilmarnock was one of the strongest, on paper at least, that they have been able to field this season.
This was the first time Steven Naismith, Jamie Walker and Glenn Whelan had all started in the same side. Aside from the centre-back area, where Craig Halkett and John Souttar would both hope to start when fully fit, Austin MacPhee was able to put out a team that should have been capable of far more than it mustered at Rugby Park.
While a 3-0 defeat against Kilmarnock could have been partially excused if it had occurred with a threadbare team, such as the ultra-youthful side that lost 1-0 in Ayrshire on the final day of the 2017/18 campaign, this one unfolded with arguably the four most senior players at the club (Naismith, Whelan, Michael Smith and Christophe Berra), the first-choice goalkeeper, one of the club’s most prized assets (Aaron Hickey) and two highly-regarded attackers (Walker and Uche Ikpeazu) in the eleven.
Underlining the relative strength of the squad Hearts were able to take to Kilmarnock, the subs’ bench was made up of four players who started the 2019 Scottish Cup final (Zdenek Zlamal, Sean Clare, Jake Mulraney and Steven MacLean) and three summer signings who had arrived amid much hype (Halkett, Ryotaro Meshino and Loic Damour).
Indeed, when the teams were confirmed around 1.45pm on Saturday, most journalists in the media room were predicting an away win. Within 16 minutes of kick-off, however, the notion of Hearts recording back-to-back league victories for the first time since they did so on their last visit to Kilmarnock on 1 February had been emphatically trashed by the meek concession of three goals.
As Hearts struggled in the early months of this season despite an exciting summer recruitment drive, the widely-held consensus was that things would improve once Craig Levein was removed as manager and/or once key players returned from injury. The first caveat of this theory has already occurred and the second is well on its way to happening, yet still the team is finding fresh ways to exasperate its followers, several of whom had vacated the stadium by half-time on Saturday as their team turned in one of their limpest displays yet of this wretched season. Worryingly, players like Naismith and Whelan who supporters have placed so much faith in to improve the situation were among the team’s most ineffective performers at Rugby Park.
With almost two-thirds of the campaign still to run, there is clearly still plenty time for things to get better, but, by the same token, there is also still significant scope for things to get worse for a team incapable of finding any consistency and increasingly resembling relegation contenders. The big hope among supporters is that the appointment of a new manager will have a galvanising effect on a squad many observers expected to be strong enough to compete for third place. The transformation of a previously hapless Hibs team over the past two games since Paul Heckingbottom’s departure provides clear evidence of how a grim situation can swiftly become positive if the correct course of action is taken.
The problem for Hearts at present is that, while Jack Ross always appeared a logical fit for Hibs, there appears to be no obvious, realistically-attainable contender for the Tynecastle vacancy who could be expected to come in and unite players and supporters behind him. Daniel Stendel is the one name who has genuinely excited the majority of fans, but the German is likely to prove out of Hearts’ reach financially. This leaves a pool of unconvincing candidates, none of whom look readily equipped for the task at hand, which is to pull this group of reputable but out-of-form players together and get them playing at least to the sum of their parts amid an environment which will become more pressurised and more toxic with each passing setback.
With the team currently mired in the relegation zone and a formidable trip to Rangers next up on Sunday, there is every chance Hearts will be joint-bottom of the league going into their next home game against bogey team Livingston. Considering they lost 3-1 at Ibrox when flying high at the top of the table 14 months ago, it is hard to envisage the current team - who were steamrollered by Steven Gerrard’s side at Hampden earlier this month - being anything other than lambs to the slaughter at Ibrox.
The slump which has led Hearts to a point where it is impossible to make a strong case for them winning any Premiership match has been going on for 13 months now. In a league in which no team is proving hapless enough to be cut adrift at the bottom, Hearts, who lack cohesion, confidence and identity, are no longer enduring a spot of early-season bother - they are now in serious peril.
Demotion to the Championship for the second time in a decade would be catastrophic for a club which has invested a significant amount of money to try and reassert itself at the top end of Scottish football. A strong and inspirational new manager is urgently required to steer this underachieving team away from potential calamity.