Signing targets, demands and some improvement at Hearts after summer talks
Tynecastle officials discussed how to be better during pre-season meetings
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Traditionally a team reliant on home comforts at a hostile Tynecastle Park, Hearts are showing signs of improvement in their much-scrutinised away record. Just three league wins outwith Gorgie drew criticism last season but that statistic is equalled already this term with more than two thirds of the campaign remaining.
It is a source of satisfaction for head coach Steven Naismith, assistant Frankie McAvoy and first-team coach Gordon Forrest. Hearts' away results have been maligned for years as they often toiled to cope on the road, even against the Premiership's so-called lesser sides. The hint of an upturn in that department is therefore overdue.
Last season's results show a victory at Motherwell in September, at Ross County in October and at St Johnstone in December. Intriguingly, Hearts have beaten the same three teams at the same venues this term. The opening day brought a win at St Johnstone in August before September's success at Ross County and last weekend's triumph at Motherwell.
Performances and results overall have been too erratic for both the management's and fans' liking. However, after specifically pinpointing away form as an area needing work during pre-season meetings, Naismith is content to see in-roads being made.
"It definitely shows progress. When we sat down at the start, we looked at what are the main areas we need to improve. One that was jumping out at us was the away form. It's massively important," he told the Edinburgh News.
"You have familiar surroundings at home with fans beside you and it all feels comfortable. Away from home, there will be a period in every game when you need to defend. Teams will put you under pressure and you have to deal with it.
"That is something we speak about and understand that, as a group, you need to do certain things at certain points in games. Our performances in the games where we got results have been deserving of those results. We haven't gone into them and been fortunate.
"We have been good for our wins on the road. Ross County away was a very controlled performance. St Johnstone up there was patient. Kilmarnock was a [Viaplay] cup-tie which we won, then Saturday was a controlled display where we took our chances. You need to do those things to be successful and that's a pleasing aspect."
Demand for success won't be sated simply by victories at McDiarmid Park, Victoria Park and Fir Park, of course. Hearts' income peaked at record levels this year with a £20.8m turnover announced in their annual accounts this week. Fans, who pay monthly cash pledges to club owners Foundation of Hearts, understandably want a return on their investment.
It is a clamour Naismith feels keenly after playing for Kilmarnock, Rangers, Everton and Norwich City before ending his own playing career at Tynecastle two years ago. "Yeah, that demand is definitely bigger. I played with three clubs in Scotland so I understand each level," he said.
"The finance part is one of the reasons people think that way because you do have a bigger budget than a lot of teams in the league. The difference in finances doesn't guarantee success, though. It's not to the extremes where you just go out and buying ready-made international players who are going to deal with those pressures all the time. We are still buying players to improve them."
Hearts' signing targets will not change significantly in that respect. More experience costs more money, quite simply. "If you look at our recruitment this summer, the majority of players we signed are not at the peak of their career. They are all players we want to develop, so inevitably they are going to make mistakes," acknowledged Naismith.
"There is still a lot of work to go on. The biggest change in football in my time is that every team now has an understanding of organisation and how to defend in a game. So it is harder to score goals now. We have probably struggled in some games. Teams come to Tynecastle and a draw is a good result for them, so we are not just playing against opponents to win 50-50."