PERHAPS it needed an Edinburgh derby to rouse Hearts from their slumber. A run of nine games without a win inside 90 minutes had left Gary Locke and his players somewhat depressed, by the manager’s own admission.
Visiting Easter Road on Wednesday night ultimately proved to be morale-lifting with Ryan Stevenson’s stunning goal securing a place in the League Cup semi-finals amid a defiant performance.
Hearts were similarly gutsy and resilient when beating their Capital rivals in August, but since then they have won just one league fixture. The challenge for Locke and his young academy graduates is to ensure the spirit shown in Leith is harnessed and used to improve form in the Scottish Premiership. League Cup semis are one thing, but Hearts are still facing a deficit of 15 points at the bottom of the table and are odds-on to be relegated.
That task starts when St Johnstone visit Tynecastle tomorrow. Locke, along with coaches Billy Brown, Darren Murray and Alan Combe, has spent the last few weeks trying to raise morale. Hiding his own dejection following defeats to the likes of Ross County, St Mirren, Motherwell and Kilmarnock has not been easy.
Beating Hibs after being written off in many quarters has lifted confidence. Using it to Hearts’ advantage is now vital. “There’s no doubt about it – when you’re on a run of games as we were, confidence is low,” Locke told the Evening News. “That’s especially true with young boys. They do get very, very low. We’re just been trying to pick them up all the time but it’s been difficult because you’re low yourself.
“Looking in that dressing-room on Wednesday night, the result has given the players real confidence. If they keep that belief, we can take it into this league game against a St Johnstone team which is flying.
“The result was great but the work-rate, organisation and the will not to lose was all there for everyone to see. We’ve said we’ve made mistakes in the first third of matches this season and been punished for them. It’s important we learn from those mistakes. This is a young team which is learning all the time. If we can cut out the basic errors we’ve made earlier in the season, hopefully we can pick up more points.
“There were no mistakes on Wednesday and that was going to have to be the case all night against Hibs. We’ve shown in both derbies that, if we’re focused and tuned in for the whole 90 minutes, then we give ourselves a chance of winning games. We can’t just go out and do it against Hibs. We need to do it against all the other teams as well. If we show that level of organisation and commitment, we’re hoping we can turn our season around.”
The notion that a derby forced maximum focus, desire and energy from all in maroon was not lost on defender Dylan McGowan. “Possibly it needed a derby for us to get that result. Maybe it came at a perfect time,” he said. “Now we have St Johnstone. They have a really good strike force with Stevie May and Steven MacLean. You don’t get many easy games in the Scottish Premiership but we’re at home and we’ll be confident.
“We’ve just kept a clean sheet so hopefully we’ll take that into the weekend. The cups are great, beating Hibs was good for the fans and it was fantastic for us to get to the semi-final. Hopefully that will make the club a bit more money but our league form is going to be crucial so we really have to pick that up.
“Wednesday was slightly more important than the first Edinburgh derby this season because we were on a bad run. However, it won’t mean too much if we don’t kick on tomorrow and start improving. With the run we’ve been on, we’ve needed a result like we got at Easter Road.”
The good news for Hearts is that MacLean will miss tomorrow’s match through injury, but his normal strike partner May in particular is enjoying a rich vein of form which has led to him being tipped for full international recognition from Scotland. At Tynecastle, the saviour right now is very much Stevenson. The “we are not worthy” salutes in the away end at Easter Road on Wednesday night underline his transformation in the eyes of Hearts supporters since he walked out on the club almost two years ago.
“I was over the moon to keep Ryan in the summer because I thought we were going to lose him, Jamie Hamill and Jamie MacDonald,” admitted Locke. “They showed they want to be here and Ryan has shown that with his performances. It’s been a huge blow losing him through injury recently. He is one player in the team who has a goal in him. He leads the line brilliantly and his work rate rubs off on others.
“When you’re scoring goals in derbies, that always makes you favourable with the Hearts fans. It wasn’t just his goal, though. I thought his overall performance – the way he worked, held the ball in and brought others into play – was fantastic.”
Stevenson will lead the Hearts attack tomorrow hoping his winner at Easter Road can lift his colleagues and help them now recover ground quickly in the fight against relegation.