Steven MacLean wants Hearts to adopt a siege mentality as injury problems threaten to impair their impressive start to the season.
The 36-year-old’s experience becomes evermore vital in the absence of key colleagues such as Christophe Berra, John Souttar, Steven Naismith and Uche Ikpeazu.
MacLean is happy to shoulder extra responsibility. He will lead the forward line against Kilmarnock tomorrow and for the forseeable future with Naismith and Ikpeazu sidelined.
He intends to galvanise the dressing-room and is urging team-mates to assume a “them-against-us” attitude to help Hearts through a difficult period.
The Edinburgh club have endured 3-0 and 5-0 defeats by Celtic and played out a goalless draw with Hibs in their past three games. However, they remain top of the Ladbrokes Premiership ahead of Kilmarnock’s visit to Tynecastle Park.
Hearts have lost only once at their home in the past 18 months and MacLean insists a positive attitude is required to continue that run.
“The last couple of games have been difficult but the only teams to beat us are Celtic and Rangers. It’s important to remember that,” the striker told the Evening News.
“Listen, we aren’t happy. Especially with the manner in which we lost at Parkhead last week. It wasn’t good enough. The manager came out and said what he said but, as players, we have to take responsibility.
“Looking at the bigger picture, it’s not a disaster. We’re still top of the league. If you had asked us in the summer if we’d be happy being there in November, of course we would.
“We are in a good position. Yes, we have a lot of injuries but we have to be positive. There are big players out but that gives opportunities for others to come in and stake a claim. Other boys can step up to the plate, so this is a good place to be.
“Maybe from the outside people are trying to create problems for us. We need to have the mentality of sticking together here. Winning games helps that, so it’s a big game tomorrow. We’ve got to try and beat Kilmarnock and get that siege mentality back – us against everybody else.
“People create that atmosphere in the dressing-room by themselves. It’s up to us to get that across to players who need it. You create it by putting in good performances and winning games. We have good games coming up, we’re still in a good position and we’re looking forward to it.”
MacLean has five goals in 16 appearances since joining Hearts from St Johnstone in the summer. He feels obliged to score more often while Ikpeazu and Naismith are missing.
The latter is the Premiership’s joint-top goalscorer but won’t play for at least another month due to a knee injury sustained against Celtic in the recent Betfred Cup semi-final at BT Murrayfield.
Ikpeazu has undergone surgery on his foot and won’t be back until after the winter break in January.
“It’s unfortunate big Uche got injured, for him and the team,” said MacLean. “I thought we coped quite well with me and Naisy working on a good partnerhsip together. Then we lose him as well.
“Those two are a big miss and now others have opportunities. For myself, I’ve got to try and step up to the plate, maybe add a few more goals and put in some good performances while these guys are out.”
He also pledged to watch his dealings with opponents after a well-publicised incident with the Celtic midfielder Eboue Kouassi during that aforementioned semi-final.
MacLean was caught on camera grabbing Kouassi’s privates inside the penalty area and incurred a suspension which ruled him out of the Edinburgh derby three days later.
He stressed he has learned from his mistake and will be a tad more cautious in future. “I’ll need to,” he smiled. “I made a mistake and I’ve got to move on. There have been lots of things done to me in my career but you learn from it and move on.
“I took it on the chin, I’ve done wrong and whether it’s been done in the past or not I was caught red-handed. It’s something I’ll learn from and it won’t happen again. You keep learning even at my age.”
One pertinent thing he has taken on board is the threat posed by Kilmarnock under the extremely astute Steve Clarke. Hearts’ victory at Rugby Park in August was narrow and came via an 81st-minute winning goal from Ikpeazu.
That result is one of only three league defeats suffered by the Ayrshire club this season. Clarke brings his team to the Capital tomorrow sitting fourth in the table, just five points behind the leaders and eager to maintain a challenge for European qualification.
Hearts are still smarting from last weekend’s five-goal loss at Celtic. MacLean feels they have to atone for that result but points out the progress which makes Kilmarnock hazardous opponents.
“If we want to finish top or near the top end of the table, we need to be winning home games against Kilmarnock. No disrespect to them because they have been very good. Some of their results away from home have been great.
“They drew away at Rangers and beat Celtic at home, so they’re a top side. They have a great shape about them and will make this a difficult game. We need to bounce back. We have a great record at Tynecastle and we want to keep it going. We need to give the fans something so they get behind us early and drive us on.
Celtic sit just one point behind and are breathing down Hearts’ necks having played one game less. Maintaining that place at the Premiership summit is the ultimate goal for Craig Levein’s side ahead of the forthcoming international break.
“Tomorrow’s game is important for us because we lost last week,” said MacLean. “It’s also important because we want to stay top of the league. Whether we can do something special, who knows?”