Steven MacLean insists Hearts’ players are entirely comfortable with the pressure of a must-win encounter with Inverness Caledonian Thistle tomorrow to secure qualification for the second round of the Betfred Cup.
Although the stakes are high, with the Tynecastle side needing a victory from their final Group C fixture to guarantee their progress in the competition, the veteran striker is well aware that their hopes could have been all but over if they had been docked three points instead of two following the fielding of the ineligible Andy Irving in the recent victory over Cove Rangers.
Such a scenario would have left Hearts staring at elimination even if they won tomorrow. After a stressful few days last weekend in which all sorts of punishments and permutations were occupying the minds of players, managers and supporters alike, the very fact that everything is now within their control means the Tynecastle side will go into tomorrow’s match in a positive frame of mind.
“It is a must-win – but that’s something we would have taken, looking back at the points getting taken off us,” said MacLean.
“We all sat at Riccarton on Monday morning, after only getting the two points against Raith, thinking we would bite your hand off to still have qualification in our own hands. It’s a big game, but a good one to have.
“There was a real feeling that it could be taken out of our hands. The boys were talking about how the Cove game (three points) could get taken off us, it could get replayed or just a fine; there was uncertainty there. So, we would all have taken this situation at the time, particularly beating Cowdenbeath 5-0 and making sure all we need to do is win rather than worrying about goal difference and having to rack up two or three.”
Tomorrow’s match sees Hearts legend John Robertson return to Tynecastle in his capacity as Inverness manager.
The Highland side, who have won their three fixtures thus far, could still qualify as one of the four best runners-up even if they lose in Gorgie.
Depending on events in other sections, Hearts would have an outside chance of scraping through if they were to pick up two points by drawing and then winning a penalty shootout, but only a win will ensure their progress. MacLean is relishing the heat of such a high-magnitude fixture.
“Inverness are going well, they finished last season superbly and, with wee Robbo coming back, it will be another added incentive,” said the 35-year-old. “It’s a great game to have this early in the campaign. This is what it’s all about. There is pressure at Hearts every week and you need to win games, that’s what the fans expect. If you can’t handle that, then you shouldn’t be here, simple as that. So I’m really looking forward to it, I think there will be a few more supporters through the door and I’m sure they’ll roar us on. If we play well, I’m more than confident we will win the game.”
Hearts, who were eliminated at this stage a year ago, aren’t the only Premiership club who have encountered difficulty in the Betfred Cup group phase, with all eight top-flight sides having dropped points so far this summer. “I think the shocks just show that the lesser clubs are taking it seriously as well,” said MacLean. “They are coming back early and relishing an opportunity to get a scalp and beating one of the big teams. That’s a credit to them. We’re the full-time club with the facilities so we should be winning these games, whether it’s in pre-season or during the main part of the season.
“When teams have brought in a lot of new players and guys are getting used to each other, it creates a chance for an upset. However, I think it’s a great format personally. I think how they work it is terrific – and it’s better than playing pre-season games!”
MacLean is viewing the rigours of the group stage as a means to an end as he bids to savour more silverware in his veteran years. The striker scored in the final against Dundee United as St Johnstone won the Scottish Cup in 2014 and is hungry for more success.
“I’ve won two Scottish Cups – I won it with Rangers when I was a young boy and then did it with St Johnstone, and it is a fantastic feeling,” he said. “They are wonderful occasions, but you’ve got to do the dirty work in the early rounds to get to the stage you want to be on. You need to grind out wins and get results against difficult opposition, and so-called lower teams, if you want to get to finals.
“I still feel like I’ve got a couple more trophies in me. When we were at St Johnstone, it was the first major trophy in 130 years so you are thinking ‘this might not happen again in my lifetime!’ But, moving to Hearts, you see the history of the club and how often they have won cup competitions and you know there is a chance. You look at the squad the manager is building and the young players here and think it could be our year. However, it’s only our year if we go and make it happen – and we need to do the business against Inverness.
“With it being 56 years since Hearts won this tournament, it is about time we started doing better. If you get through the group phase, you are only three games away from a final and, with a bit of luck and a good draw, it’s all possible. If we get anyone at Tynecastle, we’ll fancy our chances, but that all means nothing if we don’t beat Inverness.”