The Hearts financial gulf, fans' frustration and a need for European perspective
Atmosphere is everything at Tynecastle Park. Locals there don’t withhold opinions so it is easy to detect a consensus of feeling on the team, individual players, coaches or even board members.
One of Scotland’s most acoustic venues has been decidedly flat recently, supporters hushed by some uninspiring Hearts displays and results. Thursday evening’s 3-0 defeat by a dominant Fiorentina side was the latest.
If the Italians were calcio kings on the night, Hearts ably performed the role of servants on matchday three of the Europa Conference League group phase. A passive first half handed opponents the initiative and left the hosts 2-0 down by half-time before Lewis Neilson’s red card.
It was the kind of encore dreaded five days after a 4-0 reverse against Rangers on the same pitch. Some perspective is needed, however. Four regular starters, Craig Halkett, Kye Rowles, Beni Baningime and Liam Boyce, are missing from the Hearts team through injury just now.
Their absences are keenly felt, particularly those of Halkett and Rowles in an unsteady defence. Signing another centre-back during the summer transfer window would have helped while Toby Sibbick takes time adjusting. In any case, is he a better central midfield spoiler than a centre-half? Potentially.
In a European context, no Scottish team outwith Celtic and Rangers could realistically live with Fiorentina. Or, for that matter, Istanbul Basaksehir, who won 4-0 at Tynecastle last month.
Transfer fees alone underline the chasm between third best in Scotland and seventh in Serie A, where Fiorentina finished last season. Head coach Vincenzo Italiano oversaw a convincing win in Edinburgh with a collection of multi-million-pound talent:
Nico Gonzalez cost £22m from Stuttgart, Sofyan Amrabat was a £17.5m buy from Verona, Dodo arrived from Shakhtar Donetsk for £13m, Lucas Martinez Quarta cost £11.7m from River Plate, Christian Kouamé £10m from Genoa, Rolando Mandragora £8m from Juventus, Igor Julio £4.75m from SPAL.
That’s not including strikers Jonathan Ikone and Arthur Cabral, who each cost £12.5m from Lille and Basel respectively. Ikone was suspended on Thursday and Cabral an unused substitute. Then there’s midfielder Alfred Duncan, bought from Sassuolo for £13.5m. He didn’t get off the Tynecastle bench, either.
Striker Luka Jovic arrived in Tuscany in July from Real Madrid. The talented Serbian earns £4.35m per year, half of which is still being paid by Real. If he stays beyond his initial two-year contract, Fiorentina must increase his salary to £5.25m a year.
Istanbul Basaksehir also have first-team regulars earning £18,000, £20,000 and £25,000 per week. Contrast that with Hearts’ playing budget of less than £10m including several million pounds for participating in this group phase. It is very much a different stratosphere.
Now, none of the above should decree that Hearts automatically capitulate and become the plaything of a rich continental side on their own pitch. The best way to deal with multi-millionaire superstars is to unsettle them.
Get in their faces, restrict their time and space on the ball in the hope of winning it from them, and thereafter build your own attacks. Hearts haven’t done enough of this lately. The low block hasn’t worked in that regard and a better balance is required.
Latvian champions RFS – beaten 2-0 by Hearts in Riga three weeks ago – have now taken points from both Fiorentina and Basaksehir in Group A. If the team seeded in Pot 4 can stand up to those from Pot 1 and Pot 2, then it stands to reason Hearts from Pot 3 should be capable of doing similar.
Manager Robbie Neilson was frequently out in his technical area bawling at players to step up and engage on Thursday evening. They needed to be sitting at least 20 yards higher up the pitch, but instead were pressed back into their own penalty area as Fiorentina freely popped the ball around.
Supporters certainly want the bolder approach and are irked that some defeats this season, specifically the last two, are coupled with tame performances. Hearts fans traditionally demand a certain level of impetus, aggression and desire in every match.
Even domestically, there have been unexpected losses to Livingston and Kilmarnock this season. The team’s playing style is being questioned as fans complain that the energy and passion they expect isn’t evident enough.
Five wins in 14 games this season while sitting seventh in the cinch Premiership is not acceptable at Hearts, so demands for improvement are understandable. Five red cards in those 14 fixtures must also be looked at.
The European schedule is a clear factor in domestic form. Historically, the relentlessness of playing midweek and weekends troubles many Scottish clubs who qualify for European competition.
Group stages are pretty much unheard of for anyone outside Glasgow. Before Hearts, Aberdeen were the last to sample European group-phase football back in 2007.
This season’s demands are new at Tynecastle, exacerbated by domestic games getting squeezed in to allow a five-week World Cup break starting next month. A run of 12 games in six weeks has just started. This year in Europe was always likely to be mainly a learning period for all concerned – players and staff.
Part of Hearts’ long-term rebuild devised in 2020 is to return to this arena regularly, then use previously-gleaned experience to make a better impact. Meantime, they cannot lose sight of the importance of league results to regain European qualification.
Some reactions to Thursday evening involved calls for a new manager but Neilson and his coaches only signed new three-year contracts in July. They oversaw last season's exhilarating run to qualify for Europe. Sacking them will not happen at this point, although they know league position must improve.
Sunday’s visit to Kilmarnock is therefore hugely significant. Hearts need to return to the Premiership’s top half before travelling to Italy next week for another assignment against Fiorentina. Then it’s Aberdeen, Celtic, Ross County and two more European ties against RFS and Basaksehir.
The next few weeks won’t be for the faint-hearted.