Training ground message is drilled into Hearts players as 'comfort zone' accusation is addressed
Nine rounds of the cinch Premiership season remain and the Edinburgh club are currently winning the ‘league within a league’. Three defeats in the last four top-flight fixtures reduced their advantage in third spot from seven points to four and caused some consternation among supporters.
The recent international break provided respite but, more importantly, time to tailor training sessions and team meetings towards addressing recent form. The rewards for retaining third spot are likely to be considerable again this year. Provided Celtic or Rangers win the Scottish Cup, the club finishing third will be guaranteed European group-stage football until Christmas.
Hearts resume Premiership duties at Kilmarnock this weekend two weeks since an insipid 3-0 loss at Aberdeen. Players are at pains to stress that at no point did they assume third place was secured. They know there is a rigorous task to complete during the season's final weeks.
“I’m not so sure if we fell into a comfort zone. The Aberdeen game was a bit of a one-off,” said midfielder Jorge Grant. “We had the two games against Celtic in that time. It may look like that, but it’s only actually the odd game where we didn’t perform. If you look at our form before that run, it was really good and it got us into this position in third. I’d rather look at it from a positive perspective than a negative.”
Manager Robbie Neilson is not the type to tolerate players taking to auto cruise at any point. “No. The gaffer is really good with that kind of thing – making sure we are right on it,” added Grant. “This week again it’s been pushed into us on the training pitch and in the team meetings, it’s important we don’t let it slip.
“We’ve obviously looked at it as a team and focused on the things we needed to work on. It’s in the past now and we can look at Kilmarnock on Saturday. Normally the games come thick and fast, but with the international break we’ve had a little bit of time to reset and focus on some of the things we maybe hadn’t been doing properly. It maybe came at a good time.
“At this point of the season, this is where the pressure games come. We have to pick up points. We are not too focused on what is below us at the moment, we just need to focus on ourselves and make sure we are doing the right things. Is it hard not to look below us? It depends. In the Aberdeen game we were playing against them so we knew the standings, but we are not interested in looking backwards.”
Grant was fighting relegation with Peterborough United in the English Championship this time last year. They ultimately dropped into League One and the midfielder was sold to Hearts in a six-figure transfer. He wasn’t around to experience the adrenaline rush when European football was secured at Tynecastle Park last season, but taking part in it this term was a career highlight he is desperate to repeat.
“It was amazing to be involved in those games at the start of the season with the fans travelling and all of that,” he recalled. “It’s something we don’t want to slip this season, we are focused on getting that third spot and making sure we are there again. Those big games – home and away – were massive for us and they are also a big draw for players coming to the club. It’s important we get there again.
“It’s definitely a huge incentive. If you look at last season, it would have been brilliant to have got through the [Europa League] play-offs, but we always had the Conference League to fall back on. If one of the big boys win the Scottish Cup, we could have that again with third place.”
The 28-year-old makes no secret of the fact he wants more game time. He has yet to cement a regular starting spot in Neilson’s team, often forced to appreciate the Premiership’s quality from the substitutes’ bench. It hasn’t detracted from the overall enjoyment and life experience in Edinburgh.
“I would have liked to have played more but I’ve felt when I have played I’ve done well enough to play,” said Grant. “I’ve really enjoyed being here. My family and friends have been up a lot and it’s an amazing place to live. The boys in the changing room have been really good as well.
“I hadn’t watched too much Scottish football before coming up to be honest. I’d seen Hearts in the [Scottish] Cup final the year before and seen some of the big games on Sky. From the games I’ve been involved in this season, I feel the standard has been very good. It might be frowned upon a bit by some in England but I’ve found it enjoyable. If you take out the top two, it has been really competitive this year. You see teams beating other teams you maybe wouldn’t expect.”
Hearts found themselves on the wrong end of some of those surprise results. Nonetheless, they enter April in an envious position in the table. Saturday’s visit to Kilmarnock precedes home games against St Mirren and Ross County with an Edinburgh derby at Easter Road sandwiched in between. A big month lies ahead.
“It’s important,” acknowledged Grant. “We need to focus on the first one at Kilmarnock. If you look at this month, it’s important we pick up as many points as possible.”