AMID all the turmoil of a difficult season for Hearts, there are still high demands.
The Tynecastle stands had barely cleared after the home side had secured a top-six finish in the SPL on Saturday when manager Paulo Sergio was seeking an even higher position come the end of the campaign.
But the manager is not the only figure with big expectations at the capital club, according to Ryan McGowan. One of the key performers in the capital side’s comfortable win over Aberdeen, his goal opened the scoring, while defensively he was as committed as ever. But even he couldn’t escape the wrath of the team’s elder statesmen.
In a week when the topic of Hearts’ future reliance on youth as they seek to reduce running costs was addressed by Rudi Skacel, McGowan agreed with him about the ongoing need to underpin the squad with some older heads.
Promising youngster Denis Prychynenko made his debut in the latter stages of the 3-0 win over Aberdeen, but while he is one of those likely to feature more prominently next season, two goals by Skacel, in a performance the Aberdeen manager Craig Brown insisted was the difference between the sides, made a convincing case for holding on to a decent swell of experienced pros.
“Rudi is a bit of a legend around here. You can see when he scores what he means to the fans,” said McGowan. “He’s got a lot of experience having been at the club before and a Scottish Cup winner. He and other senior players like Andy Webster – who has been one of our best players this season – Ian Black, Danny Grainger and Jamie Hamill all have SPL experience and it’s important we keep them as well as bringing through some of the younger ones.
“It’s the little bits and pieces they do for you. Webby is very good with me, talking me through the game. He gives me a rocket when I need it and gives me praise when I’ve earned it. Rudi is the same, but being a forward player he helps the young strikers coming through. It’s little things like where to be on the park.”
McGowan ensured there were no cross words early on with a whole-hearted display which saw him combine well with Hamill to patrol the right flank. With the midfields all but cancelling each other out, he was eager to help in the attack on the overlap while bravely putting his head and his body into positions where he risked personal injury instead of allowing the team to be hurt by an Aberdeen break.
He gave the home side the lead in the 27th minute when he rose at the back post to meet Danny Grainger’s corner from the right and his header found the target. It gave his team an advantage they never really looked like relinquishing. Aberdeen huffed and puffed but were presented with meagre pickings in front of the Hearts goal and, as a result, they conjured up nothing significant on target. It would suggest that having weighed in with a goal, as well as played his part in a tight defensive unit, McGowan could have expected praise. But such are the standards shown by him and the demands placed upon him, he still had to withstand an ear-bashing. “You don’t want to be on the end of an Andy Webster rocket! When Scott Vernon missed a chance right at the end he gave me a hammering for about five minutes,” he added.
It was Aberdeen’s best chance. It came when a free kick was dinked into the space between the wall and the goal and the visiting striker reacted quicker than his marker to get the space needed to shoot. He was wasteful in the extreme, blundering the shot well over. But it left McGowan in the firing line.
Hearts were already two up at that point, with Skacel making amends for his inability to get on the end of one Andy Driver ball across the face of goal in the 48th minute by skelping a long range left footer past Jason Brown five minutes later.
But even when Skacel added another in the 89th minute, Webster was unhappy that the clean sheet had almost been sullied. “Even when we went up for that celebration, he was still having a bit of a go at me. But that’s what you want, winners in your team. That makes you concentrate more.”
Players with a winning attitude and players with a bit of individual class. Skacel showed he has both when he received the ball for his second goal. A feint with the body and an exquisite first touch which saw the ball safely across his body fooled his marker and gave him all the space he needed to send in his shot and complete the scoring.
It gives Hearts some momentum heading into their upcoming Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic, but it was another setback for Aberdeen. They will be happy that Russell Anderson was able to make his first appearance since returning to the club, but it was another away match in which they were unable to get a win. They have managed only two on the road in the SPL this season and, having gone 12 games without losing, they have now lost their last three as they stumble towards their own Hampden showdown, with Hibs in less than a fortnight.
“It could be the semi-final is in the back of our minds,” said Darren Mackie as he tried to explain away that dip in form. “It is a massive opportunity for us to get to a final. But we only have one match before the cup semi-final and it will be important to put in a performance to build some confidence for Hampden. The form has been a bit alarming since beating Motherwell, but it has not been for the lack of trying. We need to work harder in training to get things sorted. We will talk it through.”