Hearts fans in desperate need of inspiration ahead of league campaign
Chris Duggan had equalised for third tier East Fife in the second half of the Betfred Cup clash at Bayview against Hearts when rumbles among the 1,002 away supporters turned into arguments and disagreements.
On the one hand, there were fans whose ire at the team’s performances, dating back to last season, had been simmering below the surface until it finally erupted. It was at odds to the view of the supporters who feel that the team should have the backing of the fans in times of difficulty.
Those in the away crowd would have been relatively familiar with one another. With such a small allocation, these were the die-hards. The ones who don’t question whether a logistically difficult trip to Methil for a Betfred Cup match against League One opposition is the best way to spend a Saturday. These fans are the every-weekenders, the ones who really suffer when it goes wrong.
And, right now, they are suffering.
Four Betfred Cup games against Championship, League One and League Two opposition yielded just six goals, two wins and two draws.
Since defeating Dundee 3-0 back in October, Hearts have played 39 times, winning just 13 matches, five of which were against lower league opposition.
It is a run which has led to some fans calling for the removal of current manager Craig Levein. A section of the travelling support sent a pointed message at full-time with the song, ‘Heart of Midlothian, we’re in the wrong hands".
Since the former defender took over from Ian Cathro a little under two years ago, there is a growing element who haven’t seen the required improvement following two sixth-place finishes in the league and don’t feel any further improvement is forthcoming.
It is not simply results they point to, but also performances, with the feeling amongst some that they are too often insipid rather than inspired.
Conversely, Hearts reached the Scottish Cup final last season, as well as the Betfred Cup semi-finals. They defeated Hibs at Easter Road for the first time in years. Levein deserves credit for overseeing those achievements, make no mistake about it. However, 2019 has, on the whole, been underwhelming for parts of the Tynecastle support as good results and flowing football become scarcer.
Against East Fife, Hearts started really well. They were lively, knocking the ball around on the ground, getting it wide and largely playing in and around East Fife’s final third.
Then it just seemed to stop. Play became slow, predictable and ineffective. The ball was knocked long and players watched as Uche Ikpeazu got his head down and ran into opponents or down a dark, blind alley with no torch or no clue.
On the back of the Stenhousemuir game, where Hearts did create chances but didn’t look comfortable doing so, there a section of the Hearts support that is growing increasingly concerned about the start of the league season.
Levein, after the game, was correct to look back 12 months. He was on the receiving end of some abuse at the same ground following a draw with Raith Rovers. The team won their next two Betfred Cup games 5-0 and started the season like a train - six wins from seven in the league with only two goals conceded. The style enlivened the support.
However, those teams included both Steven Naismith and Peter Haring. Over the last year, it is clear to see that without those two individuals, Hearts cannot find their highest gear.
The defensive options which have been put together, with Craig Halkett coming in, means there are quality players competing for positions. In midfield, however, Hearts too often lose their way without Haring and, in attack, there isn't the same ruthlessness without Naismith.
When East Fife equalised, and recognised that there was nothing to fear against Hearts, the visitors were unable to wrestle back control of the game. It became a game of chance as to who would win, which shouldn't be the case when a Premiership side faces opposition from League One.
Moreover, four of the last five goals have either been scored or created by a centre-back.
Most of the recent performances of this Hearts team is feeding into a growing disillusionment among its support and general atmosphere, both home and away.
Aberdeen at Pittodrie - the first match of the league season - already has much riding on it. A defeat and poor display would make Ross County in EH11 the following week a potentially very difficult occasion. Struggle against the league's new boys at home and large swathes of the crowd could be ready to turn.
The Dons should be Hearts’ rivals for, at worst, "best of the rest", but it has been seven years since the Tynecastle side finished above Derek McInnes’ men. Fans travelling with hope rather than expectation need to see something which gives them confidence and belief that things are better than what was served up in the Betfred Cup, or at the very least will get better.