Magnitude of job facing Daniel Stendel at Hearts is laid bare by St Johnstone defeat
Hard not to feel sympathy for new Tynecastle boss as he faces expectations to transform Hearts
It is difficult not to feel enormous sympathy for Daniel Stendel as the Hearts manager digests the magnitude of his new job. He must prevent relegation above everything else and his first game against St Johnstone merely affirmed the difficulties of doing so.
Hearts have beaten only one of the other three clubs in the Premiership’s bottom four so far this season. Both they and St Johnstone were joint-bottom at kick-off on Saturday, yet the visitors could have won 2-0 or perhaps 3-0. Instead, the 1-0 scoreline secured their first away win in almost a year.
Saints have one significant advantage over the others fighting for survival - pace. It troubled Hearts all afternoon. Runners like Michael O’Halloran, Matty Kennedy and Drey Wright will get in behind opponents enough to help keep St Johnstone up. Conversely, the lack of speed and mobility in Stendel’s squad is a massive issue.
The German has been thrust into the situation alone. None of his own coaches, Chris Stern or Dale Tonge, are with him in Edinburgh. One of the two, probably Tonge, will arrive but when is not clear. For now, Stendel has only his voice preaching his attacking gameplan when he really needs the help of two others who know it inside out.
Andy Kirk is assisting but is still familiarising himself with the new manager and his gegenpressing methods. There are no new players until January, and even then this Hearts squad needs a massive, and pretty expensive, overhaul. There is also no time. Celtic are up next on Wednesday.
Stendel is the only fresh face at Riccarton and everyone is looking to him to effect a vital transformation in both playing style and results. It is a colossal responsibility to place on one man’s shoulders. A friendly, personable character, he cannot work miracles alone overnight. Saturday’s performance proved so.
“We didn’t deserve to win. It was a nervous performance from everyone. I still believe we could have got a draw but I don’t know if we even had any chances to score,” said Zdenek Zlamal, the Hearts goalkeeper.
“We play a different style, more compact and more pressing, but he [Stendel] has only had a short time. We have trained for five days. It needs time to change and be better.
“Of course, we have a lot of games now. But it’s a positive that we’re playing again on Wednesday. We don’t have a long time to think about this loss. The next game comes up quickly although it will be very tough.”
O’Halloran got in behind Zlamal in the first half and only Aaron Hickey’s goal-line block prevented him scoring. St Johnstone struck through substitute Callum Hendry’s unchallenged header from Kennedy’s 74th-minute corner. Zlamal made a breathtaking save from Hendry seconds earlier.
“Yeah, I made that save – but we lost the goal from the corner immediately,” said the Czech. “So it’s going to be frustrating but, to be honest, we didn’t deserve to win.
“We played zonal marking and the guy was in front of me. Then he went to the near post and had a free header. I haven’t seen it back on TV but it’s disappointing.”
Expectations were that Hearts would benefit from the proverbial new-manager bounce at the weekend and earn a much-needed victory. On Wednesday, there is no such pressure against Celtic.
“The positive is that, against St Johnstone, everyone expected us to win – and that created pressure. On Wednesday, the pressure is on the Celtic side, so we can feel not too much. We can surprise them,” said Zlamal.
The goalkeeper is back in the team after a spell on the sidelines, although there is no guarantee that he will be Stendel’s long-term No.1. “Of course it was difficult – especially getting dropped after a clean sheet against Ross County,” he said of his demotion back in August.
“But I’m a professional. I kept training hard, staying positive. Psychologically it was tough but I trained hard and believed I would be back. It looked from training that I would play. But the manager hasn’t told me I will be No.1."