Pressure on Hearts is intensifying after just two competitive games against lower-league opponents. If they are to progress from Betfred Cup Group C, it will most definitely be via the hard way.
A narrow 2-1 win at Cove Rangers, a 1-1 draw with Raith Rovers and a penalty shoot-out bonus point, plus sanctions for fielding the ineligible Andy Irving against Cove – all bring unnecessary tension so early in the new season. That was exacerbated yesterday when the Scottish Professional Football League deducted two points from Hearts’ Betfred Cup total and imposed a fine of £10,000 (£8,000 suspended until the end of season 2019/20).
For new arrivals from different leagues, it is a lot to digest. The last week will have taught all 13 of Hearts’ summer signings that small teams will raise their game against them, supporters always demand victory, and sometimes trouble can be of their club’s own making.
A two-point deduction rather than three leaves their Betfred Cup fate in their own hands. Facing a must-win game against League Two Cowdenbeath at Tynecastle Park in the third tie of a campaign is unprecedented, but that is the reality facing the Hearts players this evening. Their Betfred Cup future hinges on the result of their first home fixture.
“We are Heart of Midlothian Football Club. We expect to win a lot of games,” said midfielder Olly Lee, a close-season signing from Luton Town. “That’s one of the reasons I came here. I think we should be winning 90 per cent of our games. We have a good side. Saturday wasn’t a great day against Raith but we got an extra point out of it.
“All the lads are looking forward to playing at Tynecastle and seeing what it’s about. The pitch looks immaculate and the stadium was one of the big pulls for me. I came to a game at the end of last season and the atmosphere was incredible”
Ben Garuccio, the Australian full-back, is expected to make his competitive Hearts debut this evening. He wasn’t used against Cove Rangers or Raith, which allowed time to simply absorb what was happening.
“It helps me understand the level of Scottish football,” he said. “You hear that last year Hearts never made it out of the group so actually being here and facing these teams where you’re expected to win, they’re still really good opposition so we need to be at our best to be winning these games. You can see from the weekend that, if you’re not there, it could be a bad result. It [pressure] is part of football, always adapting and you always have to be prepare for the unexpected. What we can control is what we do on the pitch so we have to take full control of that.”
Beating Cowdenbeath tonight and Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Sunday would still give Hearts a good chance of reaching the Betfred Cup knockout phase. The eight group winners and four best-placed runners up advance to the last 16 to be joined by Scotland’s European representatives – Celtic, Aberdeen, Rangers and Hibs.
“I think the last two games are vital but the SPFL hearing won’t change anything, we will still be going out to win the match,” said Garuccio. “We have to put that to the back of our minds because it was just a human error and we can’t do anything about it. We just have to focus on the football now.”
Sitting on the substitutes’ bench at Bayview, the anger of the Hearts support at their team’s inability to beat Raith inside 90 minutes was inescapable.
“The fans were disappointed but I am sure when we are winning it will be a little bit different,” added Garuccio. “I am looking forward to trying to give the fans a good result. I have heard so many good things about them since coming here and we want to win for them.”
They must also want to win to avoid another tongue-lashing from manager Craig Levein. He did not mince his words at the weekend.
“You don’t want to see that too often,” admitted Garuccio. “You want to be keeping the gaffer happy and keeping the morale in the group as well. You have to forget about that result quickly, these games come round quickly so we need to move on and get back on it.”
Lee has overcome the disappointment of seeing his weekend penalty saved by the Raith goalkeeper Robbie Thomson during the shoot-out. He scored his first Hearts goal against Cove and firmly intends to bulge more rigging over the coming weeks and months.
“I’m confident when I take penalties. I fancy myself, but you win some and lose some. The lads bailed me out and I thank them for that,” he said.
“Getting goals breeds confidence and hopefully that’s what I can bring to the team. I scored a few last season so I’d like to beat that tally and I think I’m more than capable of that. I’d like to think I’ll bring more to the team than just goals, though.
“We weren’t good on Saturday. It wasn’t like how we’ve been in training because we’ve been sharp and bright. It’s just one of those days, but we don’t want too many more of them. There are a lot of new players and we’re all still gelling. It’s not going to click instantly. We know what the manager’s ideas are an we’re trying to implement them. There will be bumps along the road but it’s a long journey.”
He is now hoping to sample Tynecastle for real tonight. “You get to some different grounds in League Two in England. Some are similar to where we were on Saturday at Bayview. This is a stage I’m ready for. I’ve been ready for a while for big stages and big crowds, so I’m excited for tonight.”