Why Hearts must back up Pittodrie promise with victory
It speaks volumes about the polarising effect of Craig Levein at present that even when he delivers a change in tactics and personnel which sparks a game-changing upturn, he is still vilified by a section of Hearts’ support.
These are fractious times to be a Jambo, with the ongoing narrative surrounding the manager seemingly accompanying - and often overriding - any issue or discussion to do with the club. There are clearly plenty who want Levein gone and see no hope while he remains in charge. Anything positive Hearts do - such as sign players of the calibre of Craig Halkett, Conor Washington and Jamie Walker, or promote teenagers like Andy Irving and Aaron Hickey - can be dismissed as largely irrelevant while their bete noir remains in the dugout.
Equally, there are others who remain behind Levein, can relate to what he is trying to do and are of a mind to give him this season to see what he can get out of a squad which looks, on paper at least, to be their strongest and most well-stocked since the pre-administration days, notwithstanding the well-documented issue at the base of midfield.
Already this season, there have been positives and negatives for Hearts. They won their Betfred Cup group, which, as has been seen over the past four summers, is rarely a formality for any Premiership team. They also played some decent, purposeful football in some of the games. However, the fact the group phase was concluded with a draw against League One East Fife - days after having to come from behind at home to League Two Stenhousemuir - sparked something of an outcry and took Hearts into the new league campaign under a cloud and with the pressure cranked up once more.
Had they been rolled over meekly at Pittodrie, as many had feared after the display at East Fife, there would have been no room for optimism among the support this week. Instead, there were glimmers of hope to be drawn from the opening-day 3-2 defeat by Aberdeen.
The very fact they were 2-1 up going into the last ten minutes is a clear sign that they were competitive and well in the game at one of the toughest away venues in the country. While it would be a stretch to suggest that Hearts deserved to win, they generally held their own against a vibrant and impressive Dons team, aside from a hairy 20-minute spell in the first half when they had to dig deep to prevent themselves falling two behind after Sam Cosgrove’s well-taken but preventable opener.
With Hearts hanging in there in the second half, but not really looking like forcing an equaliser, Levein called for the big guns from the bench in the 66th minute, introducing Washington and Steven Naismith and switching from 3-4-2-1 - a formation that brought victories at Rugby Park and Easter Road last season - to 4-4-2. The changes gave Hearts fresh impetus and temporarily had the hosts rocked before a couple of moments of rashness from Hickey and Clevid Dikamona handed the initiative back to the hosts.
Individual errors on the pitch were ultimately the reason Hearts went home with nothing to show for their efforts. The after-match vibe among the support was typically conflicted, however. Using social media as a barometer (not always a wise choice, admittedly), plenty saw the defeat as further vindication of their view that things will be no better under Levein this season. Others, meanwhile, were encouraged by the way the team competed at the home of a team who have finished above them in each of the past seven seasons and are excited by the possibilities once Washington and Naismith are fit enough to start in the same team and an experienced holding midfielder, ideally in the mould of transfer target Glenn Whelan, is added to the mix.
Whether this will be the case in time for this Saturday’s match against Ross County at Tynecastle remains to be seen, but what is not in doubt is the importance of this weekend’s match at home to the newly-promoted Highlanders. With hazardous trips to Fir Park - in the Betfred Cup - and Celtic Park to follow, the County match is clearly their most winnable on paper of their next three fixtures.
Following back-to-back sixth-place finishes, Levein needs a strong start to the campaign to calm his army of dissenters and ensure a more harmonious atmosphere around the club going forward, and a promising performance at Pittodrie followed by a victory over on-form County, who have won all five of their competitive matches so far, would go some way to backing up the manager’s claim that things will be better this term. If Hearts fail to win for the third match running, however, any positivity taken from the trip to Pittodrie will vanish and credence will be lent to the notion held in some quarters that a continuation of the malaise from the second half of last season is on the cards.
The significance of Saturday’s match in Gorgie cannot be underplayed.