It was meant to be very different. It was meant to be a new era. The shackles and antipathy of the Craig Levein reign discarded, replaced by fearless, attacking football to reinvigorate a support which had turned mutinous. Angry, agitated and agonising for change.
The protracted nature of Daniel Stendel’s appointment. The will he, won’t he. The barrage of positivity from Barnsley fans. It all fed into the hype of a managerial selection at Tynecastle which had seldom provoked such anticipation since Vladimir Romanov brought Csaba Laszlo to the club.
Confirmed as the new boss a little over an hour after defeat to Motherwell on 7 December with the side avoiding bottom spot on goal difference, there was an expectation that his presence would signal an immediate change, that a flick would switch in his debut match against St Johnstone. A verve, a vibrancy, a victory.
However, what transpired was more of the same. The atmosphere was flat, the performance was flat.
If Stendel was unaware of the magnitude of the job he had on his hands following the Saints defeat, to rally a flailing side not lacking in talent but lacking in confidence and character, then it was hammered home in the next two outings, a loss to Hamilton and derby defeat to Hibs.
The German arrived into a situation and new footballing culture, midway through the season, taking on an underperforming team lacking balance and a clear identity without his own coaching staff.
All of which came on the back of Barnsley seeking compensation, while Stendel also had personal matters to contend with as Levein revealed on BBC Sportsound.
It is hard to look past the fact he may well have been set up to fail from the start. However, he didn’t help himself along the way.
Squad dilemma – tinkering and testing
Stendel is a dogmatic manager. One whose idea of Plan B is to do Plan A better. He encountered an environment and playing squad which wasn’t suited to Plan B. It is hard to pinpoint what style it suited. He made 12 changes in the three matches between the St Johnstone match and the winter break, tinkering and testing. Aidan Keena, Glenn Whelan and Christophe Berra all started against Saints. The trio would depart in January.
January was going to prove crucial for Hearts and the new manager. Not only would he be able to work the transfer market but he would be able to get a sustained period on the training ground during the winter break, a mini pre-season almost.
There were, however, unhelpful distractions. Whelan was discarded, while Berra trained with the reserves and it all played out in the press. The former issue, the Irishman having his say in the press, paled in comparison to the situation with the captain.
Berra had not had a good season and was one of those you immediately feared for with regards to Stendel’s proactive, high defensive line style. Yet, he was the captain and a big figure in the dressing room.
It can certainly be argued Stendel needed to break a few eggs in the Hearts dressing room, but in the case of Berra it was stepping on a pristine Lindor Easter egg, rather than an egg from a caged hen. It simply created more undesirable noise around the club.
Yet, come early Sunday evening on 26 January, Hearts had defeated Rangers at a raucous Tynecastle, with a spirited display where they pressed and pressed and pressed Rangers into submission, coming from behind to win with two January signings Liam Boyce and Toby Sibbick playing pivotal roles.
Add in a decent point at Ross County and a clean sheet, albeit it lacklustre performance, and 5-0 thumping of Airdrieonians in the Scottish Cup it appeared things were looking a lot brighter.
Defensive troubles and goalkeeper issue
Things though are very rarely linear for Hearts.
There is no such thing as a straight-forward path for the club. If the club found itself at a fork in the road, one way ensuring safe passage, the other stating ‘who knows’, it is the latter route which is always going to be the choice.
In three league games the club gave up 11 goals against St Johnstone, Kilmarnock and Celtic.
Stendel’s faith in Joel Pereria and notion that a goalkeeper wasn’t a priority in January proved to be as careless as the Portuguese’s performances, while Marcel Langer and Donis Avdijaj weren’t ready to make an instant impact in Scotland.
At the same time the defensive organisation and team’s structure without the ball was causing all sorts of issues, leaving too much space behind and down the sides of the defence.
St Johnstone boss Tommy Wright has sounded an early alarm.
“We knew how they were going to play after watching some Barnsley games,” the then Saints boss said after Stendel's debut. “So we worked on trying to play in behind them as early as possible if they were going to press us high up the pitch.”
The team were far too easy to score against, the pressing seen in the win over Rangers was capricious rather than consistent.
At a time when Hearts should have been easing away from relegation troubles they had become entangled.
While the team had proven they were capable on the big stage, rising to produce a sumptuous performance, namely beating Rangers in the Scottish Cup and Hibs at Easter Road in the league, they were more than capable of coming unstuck in so-called lesser matches.
But it was these matches against Hamilton, Motherwell and Ross County which were the big ones.
No Hearts awakening
And few came bigger than the trip to St Mirren in March, days before the football shutdown. Hearts delivered the most inept of performances. It was characterless, emotionless, lacking direction and cohesion. No identity whatsoever. It screamed ‘relegation’.
Stendel arrived with a personality and philosophy which was supposed to shake Hearts out of their stupor. Instead he became part of it as the team scored fewer and conceded more in the league. He should have done better with the squad he had. That there is no doubt.
At the same time, it is hard not to feel for the 46-year-old. He helped the club in their moment of need taking a wage cut, and then only to find out he wouldn’t be getting kept on when Robbie Neilson was announced was disrespectful.
Stendel took over a difficult situation in difficult circumstances. And in each post-match press conference the frustration was evident to see. He desperately wanted to do well. Likewise, Hearts fans were desperate for him to succeed.
The right man for the wrong time. It was meant to be different.