Several reasons why the winter break can’t come quickly enough for Daniel Stendel and relegation-threatened Hearts
A day when players and supporters simultaneously failed to ignite highlights why German will need time to improve the vibe at Tynecastle
No matter what they do, Hearts’ predicament simply refuses to improve.
There was no upturn after the sacking of Craig Levein beyond one home win against St Mirren and now there has been no instant “new manager bounce” even though Daniel Stendel had the benefit of a home game against St Johnstone, another struggling side who rarely win at Tynecastle and who started the weekend alongside them at the foot of the table.
Unless the bounce belatedly materialises in the week ahead, there is every chance Hearts will spend Christmas Day three points adrift at the bottom of the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership.
That is exactly the grim scenario which will come to fruition if Hearts lose their next two matches - at home to Celtic and away to Hamilton Accies. In their current beleaguered state, few will give them much hope in those fixtures - one in which they will be huge underdogs and the other in which they have to go to a venue that no team in the league enjoys visiting. Indeed, if Celtic beat them by four goals on Wednesday, Hearts will go into Saturday’s bottom-of-the-table clash in Lanarkshire beneath Accies on goal difference.
After the Hamilton game, Hearts conclude their pre-winter-break programme with fixtures at home to Hibs and Aberdeen. Although these are two opponents they usually do well against at Tynecastle, both of those clubs are in considerably better fettle than the Gorgie side at present. For all the hope and excitement generated by Stendel’s appointment last weekend, the reality is that things are unlikely to improve instantly.
The winter break looks like a critical period for Hearts as it currently represents Stendel’s best chance to try and perform some kind of reboot. Between hosting Aberdeen in the Premiership at the end of December and returning to action against Airdrieonians in the Scottish Cup, the new manager will have three weeks to work intensively with his players without the distraction of matches.
Ideally by this point, he will have the aid of at least one of his trusty assistants, Chris Stern or Dale Tonge, because implementing a new playing style in a new environment to a big, underperforming squad amid a highly-pressurised situation would become significantly easier for the German, whose English is not perfect, if he had someone he knows is on the same wavelength.
While there is merit in having Andy Kirk, a popular figure among Hearts supporters, as part of the new-look backroom staff, Stendel’s chances of sparking an upturn will be undermined if he is unable to get at least one of his own men in to assist him. Landing one of the German’s assistants should currently be of more importance than recruiting a new sporting director.
In addition to drilling the squad on the training ground, Stendel will hope to welcome back some key players from injury - John Souttar, Peter Haring and Conor Washington - while simultaneously freshening things up in the January transfer window. While the squad remains strong on paper, too few of the players are performing anywhere near their capabilities. This has now been the case for a lengthy-enough period to suspect that several of the current squad have run their course in Gorgie and are in need of a fresh start elsewhere to revive their own careers.
The mental burden of playing for Hearts at present is clearly taking a toll on most of the squad. There is an uneasiness in the stadium which is clearly affecting even the most experienced players at the club and causing them to take the safe option (passing it sideways, back to the keeper or lumping it forward from defence) instead of trying to play the type of risky football required to bring reward. Several Hearts players past and present have spoken about how difficult it can be to play at Tynecastle when things are not going well, and even Stendel noticed this early on in his maiden game in Gorgie.
The hope throughout last week was that the German’s arrival would rouse the Hearts fans and create a raucous, supportive atmosphere inside the stadium, but the reality was that on a cold winter’s day in Gorgie, any excitement from the crowd had dissipated within minutes of Stendel emerging from the tunnel to rapturous acclaim. Indeed midway through the first half, the new manager could be seen gesturing towards the main stand, urging supporters to get behind the team when they started turning on Oliver Bozanic after he failed to beat the first man with a corner.
The sight of Sean Clare, who wasn’t any worse than most in maroon against Saints but is clearly short of confidence at present, being disparagingly cheered off by a section of supporters highlighted the increasingly toxic atmosphere inside the stadium. Midway through the second half, St Johnstone fans could be heard singing “this is a library”. Aside from big matches against the likes of Celtic and Hibs, the reality is that Tynecastle is rarely the scene for a positive atmosphere these days.
While exasperation from the stands is understandable, particularly when Hearts have been such a mediocre / poor team for the best part of three years, the general passive silence around the stadium punctured by audible groans of anger whenever a player is deemed to have made a mistake plays into the opponents’ hands. It was a bold move by Stendel to make an issue of the lack of support from the stands after only his first match in charge, but the vibe in Gorgie needs to improve if Hearts are to have any chance of getting out of this vicious circle.
This team, in current form, are struggling badly and look bona fide relegation contenders. The players are so bereft of confidence that as soon as things go against them, they don’t look like turning it round and getting back on track. The lengthy malaise has caused a sense of resentment in the stands which is leading to a toxic environment not conducive to footballers expressing themselves and operating at their best.
The disconnect is now so stark that this struggling group of players and the long-suffering Hearts supporters look like they need time apart from each other, which is another reason the winter break can come as a benefit to Stendel. The Airdrie game in five weeks’ time can be viewed as the opportunity of a fresh start for everyone at Tynecastle.
In the meantime, Stendel and his dysfunctional team must muddle through the next fortnight and hope that the big-game atmosphere likely to be generated against Celtic, Hibs and Aberdeen can rouse them enough to pick up a few points from a run of games which looks anything but appetising.