As any Hearts fan will testify, supporting their team is rarely a straightforward and painless process. With the focus once again on off-the-pitch matters as the SPL considers invoking sanctions on the club for the late payment of its players,
Saturday’s game at Inverness is an opportunity for Jambos to shift the emphasis back towards the fine on-field form the club has shown in recent weeks.
After a run of one win in seven from the end of October to mid-December, Hearts are now unbeaten in their last six games, the majority of which they have won – and with some conviction.
While he has been drinking in Hearts’ sparkling performances of recent weeks, former player and fan Scott Crabbe admits that, due to the distraction of the off-field issues centred around wages, the Jambos’ ascent towards third place has come as a slight surprise.
“With what’s been going on in the background, it has crept up,” said Crabbe, who scored more than 30 league goals for Hearts between 1986 and 1992. “But, personnel-wise, it’s not really a surprise. They have the strength in depth with the squad, but I don’t know if that’s going to change now with players leaving. They’ve been an absolute joy to watch and have shown great team spirit. They now know what’s being asked by the manager and they are a very organised team.”
The comforts of Edinburgh, at both Tynecastle and Easter Road, have served Hearts and manager Paulo Sergio well in the past few weeks. In their last six games, the Jambos’ only match without a win came at Aberdeen in a goalless SPL encounter. In four home matches during the past five weeks, Hearts have struck 12 goals and conceded just two, and in doing so have racked up nine league points and won a place in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup, at the expense of Auchinleck Talbot.
Perhaps the highlight of their recent run, however, was a convincing 3-1 victory over Hibs at Easter Road at the beginning of this month. A three-game winning streak culminated in a stunning 5-2 victory over St Mirren on Saturday, in which Hearts had captain Marius Zaliukas dismissed early on but then recovered from 2-1 down to dispatch the Paisley Saints with some ease, thanks largely to a hat-trick by Rudi Skacel.
Crabbe believes that such resilience is testament to both the influence of boss Sergio and the character contained in the current Hearts squad.
“Every single one of these players, the manager and the backroom staff need a pat on the back,” said Crabbe. “With what’s been going on off the park, they’ve got their heads screwed on, on the pitch. It’s a great reaction after going behind with ten men. I thought Hearts would settle for the point, but it showed their character.
“Danny’s done great with St Mirren, he has some great players going forward, but even when Hearts went 2-1 down and had a man sent off they still looked really organised, and that all comes from belief.
“I think it’s all about the manager’s passing game and them being patient. The manager’s obviously instilled that into the players, the players have to show composure on the ball or his style of play isn’t going to work. The run they’re on just now, they will think they’re going to win every game.
“I think there’s a real togetherness about the players. They have that look about them that they won’t let anything bother them, they will go about their business and show the professionalism they have been showing.”
While Hearts are now a point clear in third place, their nearest rivals Motherwell have two games in hand. Crabbe admits that the Lanarkshire side will pose the greatest danger to the Jambos finishing the season behind only Celtic and Rangers. Nevertheless, he says, such heady heights of challenging at the top end of the table is a situation far removed from earlier in the campaign, when Hearts began the season with just four wins from 14 games in all competitions.
“At the start of the season, because the players got third place last season, they believed they could do that again,” he said. “Maybe in the back of their heads they thought they could split the Old Firm. They would have been disappointed to be sitting sixth earlier in the season, and during their poor run the players would have hurt more than anybody.
“Motherwell have done fantastic, Stuart McCall and Blackie [Well assistant manager Kenny Black] are fantastic guys and have a lot of good players. Hearts beat them 2-0 at Tynecastle [in December] and were outstanding – it’s probably the best they’ve played all season. I said that day it would be the springboard to get Motherwell in their sights. The players obviously have a bit of belief in themselves after the poor run, but you look at the overall picture, with Paulo [Sergio] coming in, it takes players time to get used to a new manager and vice versa.
“If they can keep players past the January window, they can do well. Guys like Rudi Skacel and Webby [Andy Webster] are a must – hopefully nobody comes in for them. The experienced ones are important and there is good talent among the young boys and a lot of energy.”
Crabbe has identified Skacel and Webster as crucial to Hearts’ chances of remaining in third, but has insisted that many top performers are key to the club’s progress in future weeks. Marksman John Sutton has struggled for form since arriving from Motherwell in the summer, but Crabbe thinks the Englishman could prove an influential figure alongside fellow striker Stephen Elliott.
“Skacel and Webby have been fantastic, and David Templeton, Ryan McGowan and Scott Robinson a breath of fresh air – full of energy. Obviously, Ryan has been told to get forward by the manager and he’s been superb. Big Sutton did fantastically well against St Mirren – it takes time to settle into a team. He was outstanding on Saturday and is getting a bit of confidence. You could see when he scored that the players were delighted for him.
“After his performance on Saturday, he’ll be looking to make the centre forward position his own. Stephen’s done brilliant, but is a different kind of player – who’s to say the two can not play together. Stephen could play off John no problem.”
Two home games, against St Johnstone (cup) and Celtic (league), and league trips to Kilmarnock and Motherwell follow this weekend’s visit to the Highlands, representing a fair chance for Hearts to build on their football fortunes and continue to keep fans’ eyes fixed to the field of play.