Sean Clare is asked how far Hearts are from being the team they aspire to be. “Hard to say,” he replies. “If you go off the Ross County game we’re miles off it, but if you go off the Motherwell game we’re really close. It’s still very early in the season and we’re still building.
“It will be a few more games before everyone has their teams, is set and know how they want to play. I don’t think we’re far off but we don’t have time to be far off against team like Celtic, so we need to put in a performance.”
Travelling to Parkhead with your team still in its infancy could be considered a daunting prospect. Despite rumblings in Glasgow’s east end about Neil Lennon’s tenure after Celtic’s Champions League exit, the champions remain a formidable force.
Hearts are up against it tomorrow. “You could see it as us having nothing to lose but we still need to go there and get points,” says Clare, mindful that his club have only one from two league games so far.
“It’s a long season but we still need points now. We can’t think about getting points at the back end of the season. We’ve got a competitive squad and everyone is fighting for positions. We can’t go there and be slack.”
That competitive squad has been strengthened considerably this month with the arrivals of goalkeeper Joel Pereira, plus midfielders Loic Damour and Glenn Whelan. Pereira debuted in an encouraging Betfred Cup win at Fir Park, while Damour was introduced in the goalless draw at home to Ross County. Whelan will feature for the first time tomorrow.
“They bring a lot of quality, a lot of experience and they’re top guys as well,” says Clare. “They’re people that everyone can learn from and use in the games as well. They bring that quality and that ability. We’ve made a lot of good additions to the team and it’s very competitive. We’ve got players who have played at the top level so it should stand us in good stead.”
“It just shows how hard the manager and staff are working to better the team, better us in the league, cups, everything. It’s a work in progress but it’s something that we’re really looking for – having a successful season this season, being better than last season, getting to finals etc. It’s a very ambitious club and that’s shown by some of the signings that we’ve made.”
Perhaps that is why Clare feels unfazed heading to Glasgow, even though Celtic have recorded 7-0 and 5-2 wins in their previous two Premiership games. “I wouldn’t say it’s daunting. They didn’t score five or six in their most recent games so, although they are a very good side, we feel like we are a very good side,” he argues.
“We can’t let them play how they want to play otherwise they will be very effective but it’s down to us to stop them. It’s a good match-up and our last few games have been really close. They’ve pipped us at the end but we’re looking to give them one back.
“They are a massive club and a good team, so a good result would give us massive confidence. But when we’re playing, we won’t be thinking about how big a club Celtic are, it’ll just be another team we need to get points against.”
Hearts will draw a degree of confidence from running Celtic close in May’s Scottish Cup final. They lost 2-1 at Hampden Park after taking the lead before Odsonne Edouard scored twice.
“We can take belief from that game,” says Clare. “We played really well that day and were unlucky to lose. I felt we were in control until they scored their first. We were making them do what we wanted them to do.
“It just shows the quality in their team that they had two good chances and put both away. We can learn from that and need to limit them as much as we can, as well as being a threat ourselves going forward.”
They certainly looked a threat last week. The victory over Motherwell raised morale after an insipid goalless draw at home to County the previous weekend. Clare felt Hearts proved a point.
“Yeah, I think we did. We proved we are a lot better than that [County] game. We showed the team we are trying to be a lot more and that will help us and show the fans that we are really working towards something good. County was just a one-off.”