As the voices of Hearts’ detractors grow stronger, so does Olly Lee’s resolve to prove them wrong. Saturday’s loss to Kilmarnock stretched the Edinburgh’ clubs run without a goal to four games, but the Englishman insisted he didn’t come north to join a team that collapses after starting the season powerfully.
Ross Millen’s 73rd-minute winning goal on his league debut saw Kilmarnock become only the second side to beat Hearts at Tynecastle Park in the past 18 months. The 1-0 defeat followed 3-0 and 5-0 reverses against Celtic and a goalless derby draw with Hibs. The lack of goals, of course, can be attributed in some part to the absence of injured strikers Steven Naismith and Uche Ikpeazu.
It has been well documented that club captain Christophe Berra and his central defensive partner John Souttar are also sidelined. Lee won’t accept injuries as an excuse, though. Nor will he listen to those claiming three defeats and a draw in four games signals the end of Hearts’ prosperous start to this campaign. He is determined to inspire a turnaround after the international break.
“That’s a massive burning desire for me, personally,” explained the 27-year-old, a summer signing from Luton Town in England’s League Two. “We don’t want to be saying: ‘Yeah, Hearts had a good start and then fell away.’ I haven’t come here to do that and I’m not going to let that happen. The fans have been brilliant to us and supported us, now we need to dig in.
“Maybe it’s getting that scrappy 1-0 win that we need away from home and then kick on from there. It’s building blocks again – starting from the beginning. We’re good at getting crosses into the box and getting people on the end of things. Let’s get back to basics.
“It’s been a tough run of games and we still expect more from ourselves. It’s annoying that we haven’t scored a goal but it’s one of those things. We will keep working hard and the tide will turn for us soon.
“We don’t want to use excuses like injuries. Yes, they’re big players for us but it’s up to other players to step up. We have a good squad so we need to step up, replace the goals that are missing and replace the defenders that are missing. That’s our jobs.”
Lee stressed Hearts have the required resilience to recover from a difficult few weeks and stay in contention at the top end of the Premiership. “I think we’ve had a great start but it’s a start. We have to kick on now,” he said. “I’m not here to say: ‘We did well for ten games and then we dropped off.’ I want to be there at the end of the season. Maybe a couple of days away will do us good, refresh us and we’ll come back firing.
“We’ve lifted expectation with the start we’ve had, which is a wonderful thing. That’s what we all came here to do. We came here to get Hearts fans off their seats again and enjoying their football. I think that’s what we’re doing. It is a process. We have lost a lot of big players but there are still 11 players out there. Guys are champing at the bit to get off the bench. We have a squad of quality and we can turn this round.”
The two-week international break allows the midfielder and his colleagues to regroup. They dominated Kilmarnock without carving many clear chances. They controlled large periods of the game while probing and pressing the opposition for an opening. They passed the ball crisply, tried numerous attempts at goal and appealed for three penalties.
It was all in vain as Kilmarnock’s back line stood firm – yet more evidence of Steve Clarke’s wondrous work at Rugby Park. They stuck commendably to a counter-attacking gameplan, and even had the luxury of leaving Scotland call-up Jamie MacDonald and Northern Ireland internationalist Jordan Jones on the bench. Scotland full-back Stephen O’Donnell was unavailable through injury, whilst Greg Stewart was suspended.
So the opposition were also missing key individuals. Nonetheless, they managed to hold Hearts off and hit them with a sucker-punch 17 minutes from time. “The overwhelming feeling is frustration,” said Lee. “The first half was the best we have played for a while. We didn’t have the cutting edge. I think if we’d gone 1-0 up then it’s a different game. Kilmarnock are tough to break down. They played to nick a 1-0 and credit to them. They did a job on us.
“We played well in spells and passed it around well. We just have to find that cutting edge. It’s about getting that final ball in the last third, a few more crosses and a few more shots. I didn’t think we tested the goalie enough on Saturday. It’s about taking those chances when they come.”