Jake Mulraney: Hearts have already shown we can be challengers next season
Jake MULRANEY believes Hearts will be a formidable team next term if they can keep their most influential players fit and find a way of replicating recent performances against Celtic over the course of a season.
The Tynecastle side finished a disappointing sixth in the Scottish Premiership despite being six points clear at the top of the table going into the last weekend of October. Long-term injuries to key men like Christophe Berra, John Souttar, Steven Naismith, Uche Ikpeazu, Peter Haring and Michael Smith, among others, wreaked havoc with Hearts’ season as they endured a significant dip in league form from November onwards.
During this period, they suffered defeats against the five bottom teams in the division. For all their struggles to impose themselves on the league’s weaker sides in recent months, however, Hearts proved to be one of Celtic’s most difficult opponents over the campaign. In the six meetings, the Edinburgh side were well in the game for four of them. They won the first clash at Tynecastle back in August and lost each of the last three - including last weekend’s Scottish Cup final - by a 2-1 scoreline, with the champions’ winner coming in the closing eight minutes on each occasion. Even in the Betfred Cup semi-final, which Celtic ultimately won 3-0, Hearts were level and fairly comfortable for the first 50 minutes before a needless penalty concession and a goalkeeping error handed Brendan Rodgers’ side the initiative. The only time Hearts were rolled over easily by the champions was in the league meeting at Parkhead in November when the hosts ran out emphatic 5-0 winners.
Although the team usually has to be set up a different way against Celtic given that Hearts are likely to have less of the ball, Mulraney admits they must ensure they play with the same focus and intensity against the supposed lesser teams in the division if they are to become more consistent next term.
“We showed a few times over the season that we can compete with Celtic but we’ve fallen short against some of the other teams,” the winger told the Evening News. “The way we played in the final, and in the league game against Celtic the week before, has to give us confidence for next season. We’ve shown that we can hurt them, we know we can create chances and score goals against them. Next season we need to play with the same mentality against some of the lesser teams that we’ve shown against Celtic.
“If we do that, and apply ourselves the way we did in the final, we could really do well next season. We also need to keep our main players fit. We showed at the start of the season, when everyone was fit, what we are capable of. Even in the final we did well without Steven Naismith and Callumn Morrison, who were important players for us at the start of the season. Naisy’s been a huge miss for us.”
While many Hearts players struggled to reproduce their early-season form in the second half of the campaign, it was the other way round for Mulraney. The 23-year-old Dubliner made virtually no impact in the early months of the campaign as he struggled to adapt the demands of life at Hearts following his surprise summer move from Inverness Caledonian Thistle. After starting only one match in five months between late August and late January, Mulraney finished the season as arguably Hearts’ most dangerous attacking player, starting the majority of his team’s matches after the winter break, including the Scottish Cup final. Having belatedly found his feet at Tynecastle, he has high hopes for next season.
“I’ve taken loads of confidence from the way the season has gone for me,” he said. “I always knew I had it in me to do well here. I knew what I was capable of but it was just a case of showing it. Through my own fault, I was left out of squads earlier in the season. I was playing poorly. But I sorted myself out and thank God I finished the season strong. Next season is about improving further and establishing myself in the team. I need to add more goals and more assists to my game and hopefully have a bigger impact on the team.”
Mulraney, like all his team-mates, has been nursing a sense of what might have been over the past few days after Hearts let a lead slip in last weekend’s 2-1 defeat by Celtic in the final. “I was gutted,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that after a football match before. We played well. We probably scored too early in the game because they have players that can hurt you. They didn’t have many chances in the game but they were clinical when their chances came and that was the difference. Our gameplan worked really well. I thought we deserved, at the very least, extra-time. We were just unfortunate. It’s been an up and down season for us, but to finish with the performance we had on Saturday was good. We’ll have a little break and hopefully we can come back and do better next season.”
While sections of the support have been critical of Craig Levein over the way the league campaign unravelled, Mulraney is “100 per cent” behind the manager. “I just love how he throws young boys in to the team,” said the Irishman. “He’s fearless. He just threw Connor Smith in against Hibs in the derby and then he started Aaron Hickey at 16 against probably the best player in the league (James Forrest) in a Scottish Cup final. Stuff like that is brilliant. He’s certainly helped improve my game. He’s helped me massively, as have the other coaches, Jon Daly, Austin MacPhee, Liam Fox. They’ve all helped me.”
Mulraney also had words of praise for the Hearts supporters who gave their team ferocious backing at Hampden last weekend. “They were unbelievable on Saturday,” he said. “It felt like they were pulling us forward. I’ve said it a few times before but they affect us massively. They were right behind us and you could see how it helped the boys.”