Where now for Hearts after Brora Rangers debacle?
Shrieks of joy pierced the Sutherland night air just after half-past nine on Tuesday night as Brora Rangers shocked British football.
Their Scottish Cup second-round defeat of Hearts is arguably the biggest giant-killing act in the tournament’s history. It is certainly the most embarrassing result in the Edinburgh club’s 147-year existence.
The euphoric reaction at Dudgeon Park lasted well into the night. Brora board members literally jumped for joy around the enclosure as the final whistle sounded. There was even some Highland music playing in the clubhouse as the lights began to go out at the tiny Highland ground.
Around 220 miles away in Gorgie, the mood was entirely different as the magnitude of the 2-1 defeat to a team inactive for ten weeks dawned on Hearts officials.
Fans are asking all sorts of questions in the aftermath: When will there be a change of manager? Can we bin the entire playing squad? When will the board act and take some responsibility? What are Foundation of Hearts saying?
Owner Ann Budge and her directors are mindful of the outcry and intend to reflect over the coming days on what the future holds. Their decision may ultimately hinge on the next couple of results and performances.
Manager Robbie Neilson is under fire along with assistants Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest but players cannot escape the flak, either. The club’s priority is returning to the Premiership, which they should achieve given they sit 16 points clear at the top of the Championship table with only six games remaining.
Cups are almost as important, though. Especially the Scottish Cup. Hearts exited the Betfred Cup at Alloa earlier this season and the Brora defeat exceeds that disappointment by a considerable distance. For a club with an overall wage bill approaching £9million, that’s two cup humiliations against part-time teams in one campaign.
It all paints a rather bleak picture despite some noteworthy highs in recent months. Beating Hibs in the delayed Scottish Cup semi-final last October preceded a colossal display in the final against Celtic, losing only on penalties.
The Championship will be sealed with three more victories as well. Yet too often in recent years players have been found wanting. It isn’t just Tuesday, it’s more than two seasons of mediocrity which took Hearts to the foot of the Premiership and left them open to relegation by an email vote last spring.
Tuesday’s defeat mirrored many games this season in that some players seemed reluctant to take responsibility. When standards drop on the field, there aren’t enough voices demanding that they are raised. At times there isn’t enough finger-pointing when it’s needed.
No-one wants a team arguing and fighting among themselves each week but in football it is necessary for players to call one another out at times – both on the pitch and in the dressing room. For Hearts, Tuesday night was one of those times. There have been a number of others this season.
How many people reading this played in a football team, either at youth, amateur or semi-professional level, where certain players would stand up and demand more from others? Even if that meant upsetting one or two team-mates to achieve the desired response?
It is an important part of a team dynamic and Hearts don’t appear to have enough of it right now. It is particularly evident in stadiums which are largely empty because of the Covid pandemic. Every shout is audible.
You hear players like Steven Naismith, Michael Smith or Craig Gordon during matches, to name a few examples. But too often there aren’t enough people asking questions of team-mates when levels drop. No doubt a bit more is said behind closed doors but this Hearts team is in dire need of more character.
That will doubtless be one commodity high on the agenda for this summer’s recruitment drive. Another revamp now seems unavoidable in order to properly rid Riccarton of the malaise which had set in long before Neilson returned last June.
There is also need for greater bravery on the ball. Often a forward pass could be played when Hearts are trying to build an attack, but then a sideways one is preferred for fear of losing possession.
A gap between the opposition centre-back and full-back is begging for a delivery into the channel to invite a striker’s run, yet that pass only comes occasionally.
Hearts are lacking an incisive edge as a result. Neilson knows it isn’t good enough. Whether fans are willing to grant him more time to sort it is indeed a pertinent question. It is already clear from reactions to Tuesday night that many are not.
Some are questioning why the Foundation aren’t addressing concerns on their behalf. Supporters have donated more than £10m to their club since 2014 and feel disconnected because their investment hasn't brought sufficient on-field rewards. There is no doubt they deserve much better.
Knee-jerk reactions aren’t in Budge’s character, although she will also have learned from being too loyal for too long to former manager Craig Levein. The next few days could be quite telling and Saturday’s home Championship match against Queen of the South now assumes so many extra connotations.
Senior Hearts officials agreed to spend a significant amount of money on the squad following that controversial demotion last year. The aim was to gather a squad to both win the Championship and compete once back in the top flight.
Too often, that group of players have failed to live up to their billing. They, plus the management and coaching staff, must take responsibility for events this season. Tuesday was rock bottom and it remains to be seen how many are left come the start of next season.