DARREN Barr spent three years at Tynecastle before Hearts, out of financial necessity, allowed him to transfer his loyalties to Kilmarnock during the close season.
This afternoon he will face his former club for the first time since then but revealed he will have no compunction about sending them closer to the Championship should the Ayrshire club prevail at Rugby Park.
Barr, 28, admits that beating Hibs 5-1 (and scoring the opener) in the 2012 Scottish Cup final pips winning his only cap for Scotland as the highlight of his career thus far, but makes it clear that his professional duty is to his current employers and not to old friends. “I’m looking forward to facing Hearts,” he said. “We want to get things going again. We had a good result last week and we want to build on that. It’s a hard predicament Hearts are in but we’ve only had one win so we need to start showing we can we win more games.”
Even so, Barr revealed he has not contacted his former team-mates ahead of today’s game, believing any attempt to wind up his old colleagues would be inappropriate in the circumstances. “I haven’t even thought about doing that,” he said. “I’ve never done it at any club I’ve been at. There have been a lot of changes but it probably had to happen. It’s just the way it has to be. But all I can think about is Kilmarnock. I’m at this club now and I need to focus on that.”
Barr has been around the block enough times to realise that his Hampden heroics 20 months ago will not spare him when Hearts supporters offer their opinions today. “Am I expecting a good reception from the Hearts fans? Probably not,” he said. “That’s just football, isn’t it? It’s the way it is. Maybe some of the Hearts fans will give me a good reception. You never know. That goal in the cup final was the highlight of my career. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was absolutely brilliant but we all need to move on.”
Five or six years from now, the current members of the Hearts squad may be able to look back calmly on this season and reflect on how much, and how quickly, they learned during it. Soaking up new experiences by the match, they can hardly help becoming better, wiser players as a result.
At present, however, there is no time for any such contemplation. In the midst of a battle against relegation, they can live only for the moment. The barely-contained euphoria of August, when they beat Hibernian and Aberdeen as well as drawing at Partick Thistle, evaporated with the onset of autumn. Since taking those seven points from three games, they have added just one more from their subsequent six. Defeat at Kilmarnock this afternoon, coupled with a point or more for St Mirren at Tannadice, would see Hearts fall 16 points behind the two clubs immediately above them – a greater gap than the 15-point deduction with which they began the season as a penalty for going into administration. The psychological impact of that could be considerable, but midfielder Callum Tapping, for one, is confident that manager Gary Locke can help his squad remain resilient.
“It’s true that a lot of players could let their heads go down after one defeat, but the gaffer’s on to us all the time to keep our heads up and keep the confidence high,” 20-year-old Tapping said. “A lot of the boys are still young, but we just want to do well. Every Saturday is another game and if you lose then you look to the next Saturday to try and put things right. The confidence is not something to worry about with us, I don’t think. There’s a good atmosphere in the camp and everyone’s coping well.
“It’s got to the stage now where everyone’s playing their part. After the first few weeks we all realised we have to play our part here. It’s not just three or four players – we needed everyone to step up to the challenge.
“At the age of 20 or 21 we’re getting to that stage where we need to start playing, and if we’re playing we need to prove to everyone else that we’re not just kids. I don’t think as players we overly relied on the older players, but I think a lot of people around us thought about us as ‘young boys this, young boys that’. We need to prove to everyone else that we’re not just young boys any more. We want to be judged as footballers that are playing in the first team, not just kids that are playing in the first team. I think we’re starting to prove to people that we can do that – and if that carries on then we can do well.”
As Tapping acknowledged, not every player is blessed with the natural ability to recover quickly from a demoralising series of defeats. But Locke was certainly one who could do that during his playing days with Hearts, Bradford City and Kilmarnock, and the manager seems to have communicated that sanguine attitude to his team.
“It does take a certain mentality to keep taking the setbacks we’ve been having, and it’s a learning experience as well,” Tapping said. “When we come out the other side, what we’re going through just now is going to be a positive. If we come out the other side and we’ve done well, then we’re going to be buzzing.
“If we were to win [against Kilmarnock] it would get the momentum going,” he added. “Earlier in the season we were flying for three or four games, so if we can get that going again it can only be good.”