Hearts go into tomorrow’s home match against Dundee at their lowest ebb since emerging from administration three years ago.
The Tynecastle club’s rapid and impressive progress, which brought an emphatic Championship title win and a third-place finish in the Premiership last season, has stalled in recent months, with the current season unravelling spectacularly and rancour taking hold among the fanbase.
Questions are being asked of everyone at the club as a campaign which Hearts began with aspirations of challenging at the very top of the Premiership now looks like degenerating into a scrap with the upwardly mobile Partick Thistle to hold on to fifth place. To put into context the contrasting trajectories of these two sides, Hearts have lost six of their last seven matches in all competitions. The limp 1-0 defeat at St Johnstone on Wednesday was the fifth game in six in which they have failed to score. Thistle have won five and lost only one of their past nine in all competitions. They are entitled to fancy their chances of overtaking Ian Cathro’s confidence-shorn team.
“Things aren’t really going for us at the moment,” said Liam Smith, who, aside from a 21-minute substitute outing on Wednesday, has been restricted to a watching brief from the sidelines as Hearts have nosedived over the past couple of months. “We need to get ourselves together and fix the problems because we’ve got a good group of players and we shouldn’t be in the position we are in at the moment. We can’t keep this run going – we need to stop it soon to keep our season going.”
Wednesday’s defeat left Hearts five points behind fourth-placed St Johnstone in the battle for a Europa League slot. Smith is adamant that fourth is still achievable but he acknowledges that a strong mentality will be required from every Hearts player as they bid to ride out the storm currently engulfing the club. “It’s going to be another test of character against Dundee,” said the 20-year-old right-back. “I think that’s been the case in a lot of games recently and we’ve maybe not stepped up in a few of them. The home crowd might be a bit agitated but we need to step up and try and right some wrongs. Obviously it’s not going to turn our situation round straight away but it would be one step closer to turning it round.
“You can sense that the fans are agitated and it’s totally understandable. When they’re coming out on a Wednesday night and paying their money hoping to watch us win games, it’s perfectly understandable that they get frustrated when it’s not going well. I hope they stick with us and help us turn it round. As players, you have to try and not let the frustration from the stands affect you. But we share the same frustration as the fans – we’re desperate to turn it round.
“The season is about finishing fourth now. We need to finish in a European position. If we get there, that will start to turn the fans back in our favour. Good performances and good results will turn the fans. We’ve got a few games before the split and we’ve still got to play St Johnstone again, so of course we can still catch them. It’s not done yet. Hearts as a club have to be in the European places so we have to do everything we can to catch St Johnstone.”
Smith does not believe the influx of new players this season is directly to blame for Hearts’ slump. He believes a lack of confidence is the main issue – not a lack of talent or desire. “The changing room’s good,” he said. “Everyone’s got it in them to produce otherwise they wouldn’t be at the club but it’s time for everyone to step up and show it. Everyone comes in and does their best to understand the importance of the club and what it means to the fans. Everyone that comes in understands the history of the last few years and also the longer history of the club. I don’t think that’s a problem. Everyone’s professional and they want to do their best for the club. But when things are going badly, your confidence gets affected.
“In some games we’ve been allowed to play the way we’ve wanted to play and we’ve had some good results, but in other games you need to fight. We need to find a way to win the games where things are not going quite right for us. If we can’t play nice football, then we need to make sure we win the fight.”
The only positive for Smith on Wednesday was that he got on the pitch for the first time since starting in the 4-0 defeat at Celtic Park more than two months previously. The youngster, who had been earmarked as Callum Paterson’s replacement, has had to wait on the sidelines as January recruit Andraz Struna has instead taken command of the right-back berth. An injury to Lennard Sowah, however, opened up an opportunity for Smith as Struna shifted across to left-back. “Sitting on the bench, you want to be out there helping the team,” said the academy graduate. “It does look difficult at the moment. But if I get a chance, I just need to try and show that I’m capable of helping the team turn it around. I don’t think I can get frustrated about not getting a game because Andraz has just been in the last Slovenia squad and is an experienced player. I just need to continue to do all I can in training to show I’m capable. I’ve got to remain positive. I’ve got another year on my contract so I’ve got to come back in pre-season and do as much as I can to push Andraz for his position.”