EVEN if they had not been handicapped by a 15-point deduction for going into administration, Hearts would surely have spent this season closer to the bottom than the top of the Scottish Premiership.
The inexperience and size of their small squad, plus the two-window signing ban, would have seen to that.
Had they begun the campaign on zero, the eight points they have accumulated so far would have had them in ninth place today. Matches against the likes of St Mirren, then, were always going to be more important than those against Celtic, but the points penalty has certainly added to the urgency of today’s fixture at Tynecastle.
A win for Gary Locke’s team would cut their deficit on the Paisley club to just six points. With less than a quarter of the season played, such a result would be the most important so far in Hearts’ campaign to beat the drop.
But, given the team have seen every single game as, to use the old cliche, a cup final, how should we regard this one? Jamie Hamill, for one, is in no doubt.
“A double cup final,” the midfielder said. “It’s one I’m looking forward to, as is everyone else in the dressing room. It’s obviously a massive game for us.”
It is almost as significant for St Mirren, who have yet to win a game this season, and Hamill thinks the visitors could be under more pressure this afternoon than his own team. “Hopefully that’s going to be the case. Obviously they’ve had a few disappointing results, though they got a good one on Monday night against Aberdeen. They’re going to be under pressure, but so are we given we’re on minus points and trying to get to zero as soon as possible. Hopefully we take another step towards that on Saturday.”
That point against Aberdeen at the start of this week ended a run of four defeats in the league, and during that run Saints were also knocked out of the League Cup by Queen of the South. The 1-1 result in itself was no great cause for celebration, but the manner in which it was achieved represented a significant improvement.
After looking disorganised and uninterested in previous matches, such as the 2-0 loss at Easter Road, St Mirren played with purpose again, matching the high tempo with which Aberdeen began the game. Where previously it had been easy to infer that manager Danny Lennon had lost the ability to get through to his players, here there was clearly unity within the camp.
“We’re down there and need to get ourselves out this hole we have got ourselves into,” said Scotland under-21 midfielder John McGinn, who was recalled by Lennon for that Monday night match. “But I still definitely prefer to be in our position than theirs, because we’re higher up in the table.”
Hearts are unlikely to be up against a disorganised and demoralised bunch of individuals today, and, especially with Jim Goodwin back in midfield rather than defence, St Mirren now look sure to pose a tougher physical test than they would have done if this match had been a couple of weeks ago. Having said that, one of the most impressive aspects of Hearts’ performances to date has been their ability to hold their own in games which come down to tests of strength.
Hamill and Dylan McGowan have been the team’s only over-21 outfield players in most games, and the central-midfield trio of Jason Holt, Scott Robinson and Callum Tapping are not the tallest; but despite that lack of experience and inches, Hearts have invariably been able to compete right to the end of matches. True, the two late goals which saw them lose to Ross County a fortnight ago dealt a bitter blow, but late strikes of their own saw them beat Aberdeen and Hibernian and grab a point at Firhill.
The fabled fearlessness of youth may be part of the reason for the spirit Hearts have shown in those games, but Hamill himself has emerged as one of the team’s leading lights, especially when playing through the middle rather than at right-back. At times the 27-year-old has almost seemed to adopt the role of an on-field coach, helping his younger team-mates stay focused as well as carrying out his own duties.
“I enjoy just getting in and about people, in addition to helping younger boys through the game,” he said. “I had that as a young guy coming through the ranks at Kilmarnock and it was of great benefit to me. It’s good to play with the kids, but you need that experience. I see a big difference from when they came in for pre-season training. Every one of them has come on leaps and bounds.”
The same could be said of Locke. There were times towards the end of last season when he looked a shade bewildered by what was going on around him – understandably so, as no-one else except for Vladimir Romanov’s appointees on the board knew what was really going on. But this season, Locke has grown into the job, showing the kind of leadership qualities he displayed when made Hearts captain at a young age.
Hamill, who worked with Locke when the latter was a senior player at Kilmarnock, said it was obvious even then that his current boss was a manager in the making. “He was good at the time, passing on different bits of wisdom. He’s brought that to the Hearts dressing room, which is why everyone’s pulling in the same direction,” said Hamill.
“You can see in people if they’ve got it in their make-up to go on and do well as a manager, and he certainly fitted into that category. He’s handled everything that’s been thrown at him in a difficult situation. Hopefully we can repay him at the end of the season. This squad is good enough to stay up.”
Of course the task of staying up will be made easier if other teams fall apart, but Hearts know they cannot presume that will happen. They must aim to stay afloat by their own efforts – and a win this afternoon would give them a buoyancy which could last for months.