Stephen Kingsley highlights defensive issue and what Hearts must do better after ‘wake-up call’

After a stop-start opening month, Stephen Kingsley hopes the hamstring issues that have plagued his season so far are now in the rear-view mirror.

The defender completed only his second full 90 minutes of the campaign against Livingston at the weekend after an irritating injury that he picked up in pre-season. Now, having come through the disappointing defeat at the Tony Macaroni without any problems, the 28-year-old feels his season is just starting and he is determined to do his bit to address an irritating statistic that no defender wants to be associated with.

Nine games into the campaign and Hearts have yet to keep a clean sheet. To avoid taking that unwanted record into double figures Kingsley and his defensive colleagues know they will have to be at their sharpest and strongest against an İstanbul Başakşehir team on Thursday who are finding the net with regularity.

“I felt very fit, even if I was a bit nervous about getting my first 90 minutes since Europa,” Kingsley told the Evening News after the 1-0 at Livingston. “I felt great and hopefully that’s my season starting now. Other than Europe, I had ten minutes against Dundee United but that was it. I feel fit and ready to go for Europe, St Mirren on Sunday and onwards from that.”

Stephen Kingsley apologises to the fans at full time during after losing 1-0 to Livingston. He says Hearts must get back to basics and start getting clean sheets. Picture: Paul Devlin / SNS

Kingsley’s only two previous starts this season were the Europa League play-off legs away and at home to FC Zurich. He played the whole game in St Gallen, but was taken off 12 minutes from the return leg at Tynecastle.

Watching from the sidelines hasn’t been easy, with injuries to Hearts’ other defensive rocks Craig Halkett and Ky Rowles ruining any prospect of a settled defence. There has been a lot of talk in recent days about what Hearts have lacked in the final third of the pitch when failing to score against Kilmarnock and Livingston, but Kingsley sees things from a different perspective.

“For me, as a defender, keeping clean sheets is our bread and butter,” he explained. “Defensively, we need to be strong and solid. We have got players going forward that are dangerous, even if we have not shown it recently. We’ll work on that and try to get it right.

“But we know we have the players and defensively it is our job to keep clean sheets. Other than ten minutes against United, Livingston was my first league game, so I was really disappointed not to keep a clean sheet. That is a must going into these games and these places in Europe, so we can let the creative players do the business.”

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Left-footed Kingsley had to operate as a right-sided centre-back in his two previous starts against Zurich, but was back to his more familiar left-hand side in West Lothian. Injuries have forced manager Robbie Neilson to chop and change personnel at the back but the former Swansea, Hull and Falkirk man insists it is not an excuse for failing to in every game keep the ball out of the net.

“That is the challenge,” he explained. “We knew that coming into the season. We’ve got so many games that the squad was always going to be rotated. Players will come in and come out. We need to be ready when we do come in and the game kicks off.

“We need to do the basics well and, personally, I feel that’s something we have not done well enough in the last two games. We got into Europe in the first place by doing the basics well in the league games, so we need to get back to that.”

Not doing the basics well is one of two concerns Kingsley is focussed on putting right. The other is that, in his view, Hearts have allowed themselves to be physically dominated by both Kilmarnock and Livingston.

“Livingston felt like a carbon copy of last Wednesday night against Kilmarnock, in terms of being dominated during the game,” Kingsley explained. “Even when we did have the ball I felt we weren’t quite at it.

“When we did give the ball away in dangerous areas they punished us. I felt we weren’t a cohesive unit really and that was similar to last Wednesday.

“We put ourselves at risk at times, especially in the first half when we gave away a couple of chances and were lucky to get away with. We actually started pretty well for the first 10 to 15 minutes, but the game changed, they pressed up high and we couldn’t deal with it. It’s a big wake-up call because we need to be able to deal with these games and conditions. That’s what teams are going to do against us. So we need to wake up and rectify it. The next couple of months is a massive part of our season. It’s huge.

“The league games are our bread and butter and we need to make sure we turn up and match these teams’ physicality. If we do, our talent should shine through, but the last two games we have not done it. We must hold ourselves accountable and try to put it right against St Mirren on Sunday.

“In the meantime, we need to dust ourselves off because Thursday is a massive game and if we are not at it it could be really dangerous for us.”

He expects Başakşehir to pose a completely different type of challenge at Tynecastle, but some aspects of Hearts’ defensive work will have to tighten up against the high-flying Turkish team who have won three in a row and are unbeaten in ten.

“It is a massive game,” added Kingsley. “We need to be up for it and at it. Hopefully the Tynecastle crowd will help us along the way. Of course it was raw after losing to Livingston but, regardless of the last two games, it is a massive occasion and one we will look forward to.”