'We’ve come the furthest in the league' - Hearts Women's captain Mariel Kaney on the progress and pride of the team
On Sunday afternoon at the Oriam Hearts Women were treated to all the emotions football has to throw at its sometimes unsuspecting devotees.
There was unbridled joy, deflation and ultimately pride.
Andy Kirk’s side had gone toe-to-toe with a Spartans side chasing fourth behind the ‘big three’ of Celtic, Rangers and champions Glasgow City.
Chances came and went throughout the topsy-turvy encounter before substitute Aimee Anderson was upended in the box with moments left in the match. Murron Cunningham stepped up.
Kirk, a constant presence on the sidelines cajoling his team alongside Aaron Hughes, could barely watch.
The spot kick was planted into the back of the net provoking jubilant celebrations. Hearts were on the verge of their third league win of the season.
Spartans attacked, won a corner and scored from it. Delight to despair.
Kirk gathered his players after the match and picked them up once more, as he has done throughout a testing campaign. He spoke about how far they had come, the enjoyment he had garnered from managing them and of his pride.
It made his exit from the position, confirmed by the club on Monday afternoon, all that more emotional.
"They are the most enthusiastic people which is amazing,” captain Mariel Kaney told the Evening News. “So to have them at training has been such a blessing because they have managed to keep our heads up and really enjoy the game.
"A big part of that for them is playing with the ball and keeping the ball. They definitely instilled a confidence in us to be able to do that. I think that’s really started to show with the way we are playing.
"Obviously there are some amazing teams in this league and some really special players, this country has attracted some really great talent so we are up against it a lot of the time but we are really starting to show, even in games against Rangers, Celtic and City, what we can do with the ball which is amazing to see.
"To be able to take a step back and have the confidence to put your foot on the ball against players of that calibre is pretty special so I think we have achieved a lot this season.
“The three of them have been absolutely amazing. We have learned so much just from their experience in every department. Kirky was obviously a striker but his knowledge of the game all over the pitch is phenomenal.
"Personality wise I think they are a really good unit as well. We were just so grateful to be able to work with them.”
Some may look at the table and see Hearts bottom with eight points from 21 games but context has to be applied.
The team had made the step up from SWPL2. Manager Kevin Murphy left for Rangers which saw the arrival of Kirk in August. The league has gone professional with some sides paying, in relative terms, big money. It was a stop-start campaign which brought about a demanding schedule.
On top of that this Hearts side is incredibly young.
While the players speak so positively about the impact of the coaching staff, it has still been up to them to carry it out on the pitch.
The team have grown individually and as a unit, becoming more confident and competitive.
"I think we have learned so much,” Kaney said. “In September we were in a very different position.
"I think if you saw us against Spartans you will see what we’re capable of and what Kirky has implemented. I’m just really proud of everybody who has been involved in that.
"We’re playing good football and much more solid defensively, much more confident on the ball and the way people are thinking about the game.
"Tactically, technically and physically, I think we have improved in every department.”
She added: “I think it’s been a natural progression but the way we have looked at it, it is as very much a mini-season for each round of fixtures.
"I think the catalyst was the last Spartans game when we had a really good performance, took a heavier defeat but we played really well with the ball. Following on from that we’ve had a really positive seven games.
"Redefining success and focusing on improvements and our performances rather than results and that’s what you need to do in a building season like this.
"If you look at how far we’ve come, we’ve come the furthest in the league.”
The progression has been aided by the squad spirit, something many teams could learn from. Team-mates rather than just colleagues.
Kaney used the example of Eilidh Davies who started against Spartans.
“All of the team were celebrating her getting her start because she deserved it and I think that's a really nice culture that we have got,” she said.
“The team culture is amazing.
"It’s a special thing and a rare thing to be able to keep your head up when you are not getting results. It’s really easy for that to become a toxic environment.
"People can get negative and people can get on each other’s back. We’ve managed to take that and put it to the side and build each other up and look at the development in all of us through it.
"That's not an easy thing to do.”
Now the aim is keep that momentum, that progression going into an expanded SWPL1 when the new season starts later this year.
“Everybody's really excited to take where we are at now [and go forward],” Kaney said.
"We will take a few weeks break because it has been such an intense time. Everyone’s in pretty good physical shape now, far better than when we returned last season.
"Everyone is keen to kick on and build on what we’ve got now. Hopefully we will retain the majority of the squad, bash on and have a proper season.”