Unconvincing team performances, individual lapses at crucial moments and injuries to key players just keep on coming – seemingly now at a weekly rate – for Hearts.
This toxic concoction has left the Tynecastle side, who were Premiership leaders for the first three months of last season, looking a diminished force ever since the Betfred Cup semi-final defeat by Celtic at the end of October last year, when things first started to unravel for Levein and his team.
They have been unable to halt the slide over the past 11 months and after a demoralising sixth-place finish last term put Levein under pressure to deliver in the early weeks of this season, Saturday’s defeat at home to Motherwell left Hearts rock-bottom of the Premiership five games in and placed him at his lowest ebb yet as Hearts manager.
For the second game in succession, “Craig Levein, we want you to go” bellowed out from a notable number among the Tynecastle crowd. Afterwards, there was a lively protest on the Foundation Plaza, where several hundred pent-up supporters hollered further for the manager to go. Levein has tried to put a brave, defiant face on it, regularly insisting that he “understands their frustration” and is content to take the flak if it spares his players, but no highly-regarded former player will ever be entirely comfortable in a situation whereby their own fans are turning on them in such vociferous fashion that extra security is required to man the barricades around the stadium post-match.
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This is now the grim reality for Levein after five-and-a-half months or, more specifically, 12 games without a league win since defeating Aberdeen at home at the end of March. For all that it is still early in the season, and they have several influential players to bring back from injury, Hearts don’t look like a team on the brink of catching fire for any sustained period. The goalkeeping position lacks authority, the defence is fragile, the midfield isn’t functioning particularly effectively and the attackers are not scoring goals at a regular enough rate.
There is a lack of conviction and confidence right throughout the team, which was evident in several key moments at both ends of the pitch against Motherwell. Sean Clare was weak in trying to stop Declan Gallagher heading the visitors’ opening goal. The same player then spurned a good chance to equalise with a tame finish after being teed up nicely by Steven MacLean later in the first half. Then Uche Ikpeazu’s overhit pass to Loic Damour was seized on by Sherwin Seedorf, who ran clear to bullet the visitors into a two-goal lead. After Ikpeazu nodded one back for Hearts following some brilliant play by substitute Ryotaro Meshino, Conor Washington – another sub – spurned an opportunity to level when he got himself one-on-one with Mark Gillespie. It would prove a pivotal moment as Motherwell went straight up the park and extended their lead once more after Jermaine Hylton capitalised on a moment of hesitation from Clare, who had been shunted out to right-back just a few minutes earlier when Jamie Brandon was replaced by Washington.
With 25 minutes still to play at that point, there was a worrying air of resignation both in the stands and on the pitch, reflecting the feeling among many supporters that the team is now drifting aimlessly and hopelessly towards a campaign of bottom-six drudgery.
While Hearts are doing little to help themselves at present, fate also appears to be conspiring against them, with their wretched long-running sequence of injuries to key men showing no sign of relenting. Already without guaranteed starters Joel Pereira, John Souttar, Peter Haring, Jamie Walker and Steven Naismith through injury, and with Michael Smith still not fully fit, the situation was exacerbated further when Washington pulled up with a hamstring injury, leaving his team a man short for the closing ten minutes of Saturday’s chastening defeat and facing the prospect of being without another of their main players for the critical double-header away to Hibs in the league on Sunday and the Betfred Cup quarter-final at home to Aberdeen a few days later.
On another grim weekend for Hearts and their supporters, Meshino’s performance was the main source of succour. The Japanese attacker added to his earlier assist by scoring a sublime goal from the edge of the box with four minutes left as the ten men staged a spirited late rally to try and snatch a point. Ultimately it was all too little, too late to spare Levein from the wrath of a support who see no imminent end to the long-running malaise gripping a team which should, given the size and perceived quality of the squad, be doing so much better.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Doyle; Brandon (Washington 64), Halkett, Berra, Hickey; Whelan, Irving (Damour 51); Clare, MacLean (Meshino 56), Mulraney; Ikpeazu. Unused subs: Zlamal, M Smith, Morrison, Keena.
Motherwell (4-3-3): Gillespie; Grimshaw, Gallagher, Hartley, Carroll; Polworth, Donnelly, Campbell; Scott (O’Hara 78), Cole (Long 72), Seedorf (Hylton 65). Unused subs: Carson, Tait, Mugabi, Maguire.