FOR much of this troubled season on and off the pitch at Hearts, one significant consolation has been the quality of their defence. With Marius Zaliukas, Andy Webster, Ryan McGowan and Danny Grainger in their back four, the Edinburgh club had one of the best defensive records in the SPL, which was often enough to compensate for their shortcomings up front.
Hearts 1 - 2 Motherwell
SCORERS: Hearts - Sutton (58); Motherwell - Higdon (3), McGowan og (8)
Not any more. Two of that quartet have been lost to injury, McGowan has moved to China, and only Webster remains. The loss of 15 goals in the last six matches tells its own story.
Before the start of this game on Saturday, most of the talk around the ground centred on the decision by Hearts’ interim managers Gary Locke and Darren Murray to play two strikers. John McGlynn’s preference for 4-5-1 had provoked increasingly exasperated criticism from the support, and if only to help heal fractured relations between club and fans, it was predictable that his successors should select John Sutton to play up front alongside Michael Ngoo.
Yet if anyone thought that merely picking two strikers would bring an end to Hearts’ problems, they were soon proved wrong. First Michael Higdon was sent clear by James McFadden to slot home the opener in the third minute, and then Dylan McGowan put through his own goal while attempting to clear a Nicky Law shot off the line. Law, like Higdon, had got beyond the home defence all too easily, and after just eight minutes the game looked over.
To Hearts’ credit, they refused to crumble in a first half which briefly looked like turning into an embarrassing rout, and in the second period they turned in an altogether more promising performance. When John Sutton grabbed a goal back with a low header from an Arvydas Novikovas corner there was still half an hour to play, and with a spot of luck the home team might even have grabbed a point. But the lesson was simple. Even the best teams in the game cannot afford to give opponents two goals of a start, and Hearts are far from being one of the best teams in the game.
Motherwell, for whom McFadden was an increasingly effective performer as the game went on, remained calm when forced to defend for long periods. They should have had the win wrapped up by half-time, but were not unduly perturbed by their failure to do so. Three points clear in second place, they have again set an admirable example this season on how to thrive with scant resources, and manager Stuart McCall deserves no end of credit for the work he has done.
As for his erstwhile opposite number McGlynn, this game will surely serve as a salutary reminder to the most enraged critics of the deposed Hearts boss that the problems at Tynecastle this season have not all been caused by his refusal to play two up front. And, while in the last weeks of his reign McGlynn understandably sought to emphasise the scale of his losses to injury and transfer, the problems cannot all be laid at that door either.
Had the first-choice back four remained together, McGlynn might well have still been in his post and looking forward to a run of post-split fixtures in the top six. But, while Zaliukas in particular has been badly missed, the decline in the quality of defending cannot simply be written off as inevitable.
Many of those last 15 goals conceded have been due to a basic lack of organisation, for which every player with a defensive role – and that means far more than just the back four – has to share responsibility.
In the end, however, whatever the causes of Hearts’ poor form, what did for McGlynn was his inability to inspire the players to find a way out of their current rut. Dedicated, hard-working and very supportive as a coach, he lacked the forceful personality needed to handle the current crisis. The same could be said of some of the most experienced players in the Hearts squad.
Ryan Stevenson and Mehdi Taouil, for example, were back in the starting line-up, but neither came close to exerting the kind of influence they can when they are at their best. Stevenson looked too ready to blame team-mates when his own passes went astray while Taouil was attentive enough in minor matters such as tussles for possession, but failed to impose himself in more important areas of the contest.
The two played their part in Hearts’ improved second half, as with Novikovas having replaced Callum Tapping at the interval there was a better balance to the home midfield. But Stevenson, Taouil and Novikovas are just three instances of a type of player to have become all too common at Tynecastle: one who is effective in fits and starts, but who generally underperforms. With one or two such players in your squad you may get a couple of decent impact substitutes. With eight or nine, you have an indifferent team with little recognisable character to its play: one which, no matter if you play 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, remains at sixes and sevens.