Bursting Hearts’ bubble will take extra vigour this season after 13 wins from their first 16 games. Despite being written off in some quarters, the Edinburgh club sit six points clear at the Ladbrokes Premiership’s summit entering Sunday’s Betfred Cup semi-final with Celtic. It is indeed a wondrous time to be a Jambo.
Striker Steven MacLean is just one of many revelling in proving the doubters wrong having scored in Tuesday’s 3-0 demolition of Dundee at Dens Park. He isn’t afraid to name the detractors who irked him, either. “I listen to the radio going to games with the family and I heard Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan saying that our bubble was burst after losing at Ibrox. We showed on Saturday and Tuesday we’ve got a squad that can keep the run going. The gaffer has signed good players.”
Even injuries to influential figures like captain Christophe Berra, Scotland defender John Souttar and bustling striker Uche Ikpeazu haven’t derailed the side. Beating Aberdeen and Dundee ensured momentum remains at full tilt for meeting Celtic at BT Murrayfield.
“It was perfect, wasn’t it?” said MacLean. “A few people thought when the Dundee game got re-arranged it could have been a hindrance for us. The way we looked at it was the chance to go six points clear, eight ahead of Hibs, and 13 ahead of Aberdeen. So that was good.
“Sunday is a massive game and winning the other night just keeps the momentum going. Can we go and get a result on Sunday now? That’s the question. Hopefully another win gives us an extra bit of confidence. We’re going well. We had injuries and a lot of people said that was us done. So it’s good to prove them wrong. Now it’s about keeping the run going.”
MacLean’s decision to leave St Johnstone for Tynecastle Park in the summer is already vindicated. “It’s great, eh? This is what any footballer wants. At the start of the season you would have taken being six points clear after ten games and being in a semi-final. So far, so good, but it’s only a start. We have to go to again on Sunday and see what happens.”
The prosperity is down to many reasons but the fact that Hearts manager Craig Levein has assembled a group of men for all seasons is vital. Should his team become embroiled in a physical battle, they are sufficiently hardy to compete and stand up to robust treatment. When there is flowing, attractive football to be displayed, they can also oblige to devastating effect.
“It’s a bit of everything,” admitted MacLean. “The boys have taken to what the gaffer wants and he has to take a lot of credit on the recruitment side. We’ve all bought in to what he wants. It was well documented in pre-season that he had us all in it together. It was tough, up those sand dunes and on those pitches, but we all stuck together and got through it. Every week he just keeps telling us to do what we’re good at.”
Something they are evidently excelling at is focusing on the task in hand and nothing else. Being distracted by the magnitude of Sunday’s assignment would have been easy at Dens Park.
“In the dressing room before the game, me, Naisy and a couple of others were saying: ‘This is the big game.’ That was massive for us,” revealed MacLean. “Hearts hadn’t won at Dens for about two and a half years. Dundee have been struggling but you’ve still got to go there and put in a performance.
“Bozzy [Oliver Bozanic]scored a great free-kick early doors which settled us down. The game in front of you is always the biggest so it’s great testament to the boys in the dressing room that they kept the run going.”
Celtic are a different proposition and, as holders of the Betfred Cup, will arrive in Edinburgh with every intention of making the final in December. They have the added complication of a high-octane European tie in Germany this evening against RB Leipzig. MacLean hopes it becomes a difficult night.
“It can help, especially if it goes deep on Sunday. Of course you want all Scottish teams in Europe to do well but I hope they have a hard game as that can help us. If we’ve got something we can hold on to and they’re pushing and we know we can go the distance, then we know we can make it hard for teams.
“We can go toe-to-toe and fight with teams, but we can play a bit as well. Goals are coming from all over the team with different people chipping in.”
Both teams will be mindful that their only previous meeting this season ended in Hearts’ favour on the other side of Edinburgh’s West Approach Road.
“We’ve beaten Celtic already this season so there’s no reason why we can’t do it again,” stated MacLean. “Obviously they’ve picked up since then and scored ten goals in their last two games, but we’ve got belief. We’ve got a bit about us, boys who can score goals, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Will Murrayfield feel like a home from home with close to 30,000 Hearts fans in attendance?
“Only really if we’re doing well and we give the fans something to shout about. If we don’t do well, then the Celtic fans will feel like they’re at home. It’s an even split of fans with 30,000 each so it will be down to whoever gives their fans the most to cheer.
“Semi-finals are only good if you win them. We have to impose ourselves on the game and then go and win it. Then you can enjoy it.”