Mini milestone at Tynecastle hints at Hearts beating stronger - as Mihai Popescu development discussed
The 1-0 victory over Ayr United courtesy of Liam Boyce’s penalty also completed a third consecutive clean sheet for the Edinburgh club following wins against Raith Rovers and Dunfermline.
Given their defence has been questionable at times and downright chaotic at others in recent seasons, it is an achievement worth noting.
Indeed, you need to rewind two years for the last time Hearts managed three shutouts back-to-back. It came between December 26, 2018, and January 20, 2019.
A 2-0 Premiership win over Hamilton followed by a 1-0 success against rivals Hibs at Easter Road preceded that season’s winter break. Hearts’ first fixture after the restart was a 1-0 triumph over Livingston in the Scottish Cup.
The last time they recorded three league clean sheets in a row was a year earlier during former goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin’s record-breaking run of shutouts. He went eight games in total without conceding a goal between December 9, 2017, and January 24, 2018.
The current custodian, Craig Gordon, will certainly be much happier with the recent defensive tightening. Team meetings had begun to irk him when the lack of clean sheets was mentioned more frequently.
The counter-argument, of course, is that Hearts are playing second-tier football and this is no cause for getting unduly carried away.
It is a valid point and one which should not be overlooked, but solid defending underpins most footballing successes and confidence in that department is now growing at Riccarton.
An extra subplot to Friday night was that Hearts ended Ayr’s unbeaten home run, which stretched back to before the Covid-enforced football shutdown last spring.
“The three clean sheets is great for us,” said right-back Michael Smith, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “A few games before that, we were a bit sloppy at the back.
“We had to get together as a group and have a chat about it. Keeping clean sheets is about the whole team performance. It’s not just about the back four and the keeper.
“We talked about it and it’s pleasing that we’ve kept those clean sheets now. Winning games 1-0 like the last two against Dunfermline and Ayr, it’s great for a defender.
“Ideally, we would like it to be a bit more comfortable than 1-0. But going away to places like Ayr, the elements and conditions are really tough. Ayr were unbeaten at home before Friday so that shows how difficult it is playing there. Going away with a 1-0 win is pleasing.”
Both sides of Popescu
Romanian centre-back Mihai Popescu returned to the starting line-up three games ago to play his part in Hearts’ new-found miserliness.
At times it appears his distribution from defence might undermine his colleagues’ efforts, something which has not gone unnoticed within the squad. Smith admires Popescu’s strengths without ignoring the need for improvement.
“Do you know what, he’s an honest player who will give you absolutely everything. I like the confidence he’s got with the ball at his feet and he can make brilliant passes,” said the Northern Irishman.
“It’s just sometimes he needs to not take so long on the ball. He’ll be coached that and he will become a far better player. Since he’s come back into the team, he’s taken his opportunity really well and I’m pleased for him.
“He’s really solid and he gives us a bit of aggression in there. We’ve just got to keep on top of him, keep talking to him and keep him right. We are all gaining confidence now after a few clean sheets in a row.”
They are also finally becoming acclimatised to the unforgiving nature of the Scottish Championship. A 12-point lead at the top of the division puts them firmly on course for automatic promotion despite opponents trying to unsettle them.
“Yeah, we know what’s going to come every week. We’re the team to beat,” acknowledged Smith. “Opponents are going to come out and try to steamroll us, stop us playing football. It was like that on Friday night.
“Ayr came at us in the first half and we were playing with the wind against us. It was a tough 45 minutes but we dug in and got through it. That bit of quality showed in the second half.
“I thought we were a lot better, got the ball down and passed it, got wide and made opportunities. So we know what’s going to come week in and week out now and we are used to it. We just have to keep doing the same things.”
More new recruits
Hearts also continue to strengthen their squad at every opportunity. January saw the arrivals of wingers Gary Mackay-Steven and Gervane Kastaneer, plus striker Armand Gnanduillet and midfielder Aaron McEneff.
Kastaneer and McEneff made their debuts at Somerset Park and Smith was impressed from his vantage point behind the on-loan Coventry City player.
"Yeah, Kastaneer is quick and strong – someone I wouldn’t want to play against. You can just give him the ball and let him go with it. On Friday, Ayr’s left-back had been booked so every time Gervane got the ball I was shouting at him to get at him.
“He is a brilliant player for us to bring in. It’s someone we can really use from now until the end of the season. I’ll be glad if he plays in front of me because I can just give him the ball and let him go. It’s a great acquisition for us.”