Margin for error is gone - Hearts simply have to capitalise on favourable fixture run
From the moment the Scottish Premiership fixture list came out in June, Hearts looked destined to be in the bottom six by the three-game mark.
The prospect of trips to Aberdeen and Celtic - the country’s top two teams in all bar one of the past five seasons - within this period meant early-season momentum of the type enjoyed last summer was always going to be unlikely. On paper, with a home game against Ross County in between these two arduous away fixtures, all relevant logic dictated that they would be doing exceptionally well to be sitting on four or five points at this stage. For context, in their first game at Pittodrie last term they lost 2-0; in their first game at Celtic Park last term they lost 5-0; and in their first home game against a newly-promoted team (Livingston) they were held to a goalless draw.
As it stands, they are on one point, and joint bottom of the table with Kilmarnock, after botching their best - and only obvious - chance of a victory with one of their most wretched home performances in years against County. Now that the gruelling start is out of the way, however, Hearts simply must start capitalising on an eminently more favourable fixture list as they bid to banish the lingering hangover from last season’s post-October collapse that continues to affect moods in Gorgie in the early part of this campaign.
As evidenced by yesterday’s over-the-top backlash on social media to what was, in the context of any Scottish Premiership side going to Glasgow these days, an entirely predictable but relatively low-damage defeat, there are clearly a significant number of Hearts supporters who see any setback, regardless of circumstance, as an opportunity to twist the knife and call for the manager’s head.
The desire for a change of management is a perfectly understandable and valid viewpoint given the underwhelming nature of the past two seasons, but, following the previous weekend’s impressive Betfred Cup win at Motherwell, the rehashing of the “Levein out” calls in the aftermath of a 3-1 defeat at Celtic Park, where most teams are likely to be routinely slaughtered this season, lacks contextual awareness and lends credence to the manager’s claim last week that there is now “hysteria” after every match.
Given this scenario, which has manifested from a justifiable frustration within the support following back-to-back sixth-place finishes, Levein can ill-afford any more slip-ups in the coming weeks. Indeed, the manager, who has shown an ability to block out the “noise”, will be viewing the upcoming run of fixtures as a real opportunity to generate the type of momentum his team had in the early part of last season, which is the only way he can extricate himself from the sticky spot in which he currently finds himself.
The next five league games are at home to Motherwell, Hamilton Accies and Kilmarnock and away to Hibs and St Mirren. Within this period, there is also a home Betfred Cup quarter-final against Aberdeen, when Levein will have the chance to make it to a semi-final for the third time in consecutive tournaments. Given the current backdrop at Hearts, every one of these fixtures - although winnable on paper - carries a good degree of hazard. For instance, if his team slips up against Accies on Saturday and remains in the relegation zone, or loses the derby to one of the weakest Hibs teams in years, or goes out of the cup at home to a Dons side they have done well against at Tynecastle in recent seasons, the ire that will come Levein’s way will go to a whole new level.
The manager has huge confidence in his current squad and will be hopeful that he can raise morale levels among a disenchanted support with a consistent run of results and performances over the next month or so. The recent win at Fir Park gave a glimpse of what Hearts could be capable of this season. Now, with the fixture list in his favour, Steven Naismith, John Souttar and Ryotaro Meshino coming into the mix, and the impressive Conor Washington having got himself off and running in the goal-scoring stakes, Levein has a clear and genuine chance to start motoring. If he is to ride out this ongoing storm of discontent in Gorgie, he simply has to take it. The margin for error - in the short term, at least - is now gone.