GARY Locke is well aware that, with a 15-point deficit to make up as a penalty for going into administration, his Hearts team are strong favourites to be relegated to the Championship at the end of the season.
However, while the prospect of leaving the top flight for the first time in more than 30 years may be the cause of some anxiety for the club’s supporters, the manager believes that Hearts’ financial plight and that negative points tally means his team can play without any burden of expectation.
“We have nothing to lose,” Locke said yesterday. “We’re bottom of the league by 15 points and we’ve not kicked a ball.
“For me, there is not a great deal of pressure on us. We just have to do as well as we can, and if we can win games, we’ll start putting pressure on the people above us.
“We will be [relegation favourites]. There’s no doubt that it’s going to be difficult, but we’re all up for the challenge and looking forward to it.
“You saw last year that Dundee did fantastically well at the end of the season and they won about three or four games on the trot and it still didn’t get them out of the trouble they were in. No-one at Heart of Midlothian is kidding themselves on: they know how big an ask it’s going to be. We’re all up for the challenge. The fans are up for the challenge and everyone behind the scenes at the club is up for it. If we have everyone pulling in the right direction, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
That is one factor which is working in Locke’s favour at present. His squad may be small and inexperienced, and the future is uncertain, but there are none of the divisive issues which have been so time-consuming in recent seasons.
“Certainly up until January anyway everything is going to be fine and hopefully by then we can get a buyer and the club can move forward in the right direction again,” Locke continued. “With the squad we’ve got now we can get the wages paid, so that’s a huge plus for everybody.
“It’s not easy – there’s no point in lying to you. It’s not easy when you’re not getting paid at the end of the month and you have a mortgage and a family to look after. Hopefully we won’t have those problems this year and that will be a big plus for everyone.
“One thing from my point of view is that every single player here wants to be here and that’s a great thing. It’s a small squad, but it’s a tight-knit squad and if everyone plays to their capabilities then we’ll give ourselves a chance.
“I want players looking forward to coming in the morning, I feel as if I’ve got that. If you win games that certainly breeds a lot more happiness around the place as well. It’s going to be a big, big ask, but it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.
“Every game this season will be a cup final for us, because every point is important. With the squad I’ve got and with everyone pulling in the right direction, we’ll give ourselves every chance. It’s not going to be easy. We’re all looking forward to the challenge.
“The great thing is that now the real stuff starts. Pre-season games are great, don’t get me wrong, but once you get to the fifth and sixth one, you start getting a wee bit fed up and I think the players are the same. They want the real action to start.”
The real action for Hearts begins at McDiarmid Park on Sunday, when they play a St Johnstone side who have already recorded a memorable result this season by defeating Rosenborg in the Europa League qualifiers. “We’re under no illusions how difficult it’s going to be. St Johnstone just knocked out Rosenborg, so that shows you the calibre of players they have.
“They had a fantastic season last year and I feel Tommy has added some cracking players over the summer. It’s going to be a big ask for us, but it’s a game we have to try and win, because we have to cut into this 15-point deduction as quickly as possible.”
While the battle for control of the club goes on, Locke believes it is best for him to ignore such off-field issues as much as he can and simply concentrate on football. “Once you’re on the training pitch, nothing else matters, whatever is happening off the pitch. What’s happening off the pitch I can’t influence.
“There’s no point in worrying too much about it. What will happen, will happen. We’ve got good people running the club. Trevor and Bryan [BDO administrators Birch and Jackson] have done their best so far and they’re great – they keep you up to date with everything that’s going on.
“I can’t influence anything that’s happening off the pitch. The administrators are in charge of all of that. I’ve certainly been humbled by the support I’ve had from people in the game.”
With a small and inexperienced squad from which to select, Locke will need a fair bit of good fortune in avoiding injuries if he is to stand a chance of wiping out that 15-point deficit. At present his luck is holding, as only full-back Kevin McHattie of the established first-team squad is a doubt for Sunday.