BOOING at the final whistle on Saturday proved how high Hearts fans’ expectations have risen.
A 1-1 draw at home to Dundee was unacceptable to some Tynecastle regulars, despite their club sitting second in the Ladbrokes Premiership just 18 months after relegation to the Championship.
Neil Alexander has no problem with the crowd’s reaction. Having spent much of his career challenging for league titles with clubs like Cardiff City and Rangers, the goalkeeper thrives on such pressure. Restoring Hearts to their traditional status as a challenging club in Scotland was never likely to be straightforward.
Seeing a 1-0 half-time lead clawed back by Rory Loy’s equaliser left Alexander and his team-mates just as annoyed as those in the stands. The setback was exacerbated by the fact league leaders Celtic drew 0-0 at home to Kilmarnock, meaning the Jam Tarts missed a chance to reduce the six-point gap at the top of the table.
Alexander heard the brief chorus of jeers as he headed towards the tunnel at full-time and took a philosophical approach. If you aspire to achieve success, you must deal with expectation levels as they continually rise.
“Quite right as well. At home, 1-0 up, we should be seeing the game out. We’re good enough and the fans know we’re good enough,” he told the Evening News. “They’re as frustrated as we are and as the manager is. Things weren’t going well for whatever reason and they let us know. They pay their money and they’re quite right to voice their opinion, but no-one is more disappointed than the players. We knew we had a great chance to catch up on Celtic and that makes it more difficult to take.”
Tension is simply something newcomers must cope with. At 37, Alexander has the experience to handle it but he knows others will need time.
“I’m used to it. I’m used to what’s expected and demanded of you when you cross that white line,” he continued. “We’ve got a very young squad, an inexperienced squad with a lot of foreigners coming in. Sometimes it can be a wee bit intimidating when things aren’t going well and maybe the crowd are on our backs a little bit. That’s football.
“If you move on in your career and go to a bigger club, the expectancy is even more. This is something that you have to cope with and manage individually. The expectation of yourself needs to be high week in and week out. The crowd were quite right to be up tight because we didn’t play well. We aren’t going to get too down, though. We don’t get too carried away when we win and we won’t be too despondent when we drop points.”
Nine wins and only three defeats from 15 league games has given Hearts a higher than expected position in the table as the Christmas period approaches. It is sometimes easy to forget they are the Premiership’s newly-promoted club. Although head coach Robbie Neilson and many of his players rightly play down talk of a title challenge, they can’t prevent supporters getting excited about what may lie ahead.
“The expectancy comes from how well we’ve done this season,” said Alexander. “We have a really good group of players, a really promising bunch, and we expect better levels of performance than we got on Saturday. That goes for every individual. Why it happened, I don’t know. It’s maybe just one of those days but, if you really want to compete and win leagues like we did last Saturday, you need to go and win games even when you aren’t playing well. Especially at home. We didn’t do that.
“At 1-0, we knew the next goal was going to be vitally important. If we get it, then it kills the game off. If Dundee get it, then it makes a game of it. Sometimes you’re holding on at the end because they’ve got the momentum from scoring.
“We did okay in the first half and we had a gameplan. We got a great goal [from Arnaud Djoum] and then stopped doing what was working for us. We stopped playing altogether in the second half and made it very hard for ourselves. It was a very disappointing result.
“Celtic’s scoreline makes it even more disappointing. We move on now, we’re back in training and we’ll learn from Saturday. That’s the most important thing. We learn from our mistakes and from our performance and hopefully put things right with a better display this week at Motherwell.”
A quick delve into the memory bank confirms Hearts only emerged from administration 17 months ago. They really shouldn’t be involved in any kind of title assault, for there is still significant work going on to restore the club. Yet it is testament to the solid foundations put in place by the likes of owner Ann Budge, director of football Craig Levein and Neilson that they are currently the second best team in Scotland.
Mounting a sustained challenge for the league may be beyond them right now, which is no disgrace. “Definitely, it’s not even halfway through the season yet in terms of that,” said Alexander. “We’ve started really well and we’re happy with where we are. We’re disappointed with Saturday but before then we were delighted with how the last month had gone. There’s a long way to go.
“We’re disappointed because it was a full house at Tynecastle on Saturday and we’ve got to be winning those games if we want to do anything this season. We feel it’s two points dropped. Credit to Dundee, though. They dug in, made it hard for us and stopped us playing. They got the goal they probably deserved in the end. I don’t think we deserved to win the game with the way we played. I don’t think we deserved to lose it, so maybe a draw is fair.”