WORKING towards long-term targets can sometimes be disillusioning, which is why separate short-term goals are so crucial in helping stoke the enthusiasm and confidence levels along the way.
Starting the season under the cloud of administration and with a 15-point deficit to overhaul, the journey towards top-flight survival was always going to be arduous for Hearts, which is why the League Cup has proved such a godsend, according to goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald.
Attempting to work their way up the league table will be a season-long process with everyone involved still unsure whether any approaching light at the end of the tunnel is sunshine or a runaway train. But the cup nights offer the Tynecastle club the chance of something more tangible. With every tie decided on the night, the immediacy provides a departure from their other, more drawn-out struggles.
“We know we are in a difficult situation in the league and it is nice to get away from it,” said the man who pulled off a string of saves against Hibs to help his team progress to the semi-finals. “You approach games differently in the cup and it was refreshing, especially when you pick up the win.
“The cup has given the supporters a huge lift and a boost. There have been some disappointments for them recently so the derby win is as much for them as it is anything else.”
While MacDonald was called upon to make a number of crucial saves at Easter Road on Wednesday evening, he was relieved that, for once, Hearts made it through a tie without having to endure extra time or a penalty shoot-out. “Yeah, that was nice for a change.”
But with only one goal in it, that remained a possibility right up until the final whistle. “I just kept thinking: ‘Please do not go to penalties’. I was just hoping that we would hang on. When Liam Craig had his chance [late on] I just stood up for as long as I could and thought I had to make him beat me. I thought after that save that it was going to be Hearts’ night. There were ten minutes to go and I guessed the right way but it was an educated guess!” Like some of his team-mates, MacDonald has been under scrutiny thanks to a disappointing run of results which have set back their survival bid. Since defeating Aberdeen back in August, the only cheer had come in the cup competition, with victories over Raith Rovers, Queen of the South and Hibs preventing real doom and gloom enveloping the players and fans.
But, while admitting that he and his colleagues started the quarter-final in a less than convincing manner, they redeemed themselves as the match wore on.
“It is up there with one of my best performances of my career,” MacDonald said of his own display. “I had a couple of dodgy punches earlier but the save off the crossbar gave me the kick up the a**e that I needed to go on and keep the clean sheet. It was an instinctive save. Scott Robertson hit it early and I didn’t really have time to think. I got a good solid hand to it and it came off the crossbar and I was delighted with that.
“It is always good to keep a clean sheet but it is all the sweeter when it is against Hibs – especially at Easter Road in a cup game. To come here and win 1-0 is just a massive boost.
“We could hear the Hibs fans getting on their backs with 20 minutes to go as they were still trying the patient build-up and the supporters weren’t having it. As a player, that stuff is never good to hear but we felt that was a situation we could use to our advantage.”
The result proved the catalyst for change at Hibs, with manager Pat Fenlon handing in his resignation and, while MacDonald is adamant that his gaffer Gary Locke is the right man to guide the Gorgie side, he does hope that it can also spark at turnaround at Hearts.
“The boys’ confidence has been low and we have not been on the best of runs recently. Hopefully this can be a defining moment of our season,” said MacDonald.
“Gary Locke has come in for some undeserved stick as it is one of the hardest jobs in football right now. People have been asking for changes to the team. Change it to what exactly? What Hearts have got, we have got and that’s it. So this victory is for the manager, the players and the supporters who now have the bragging rights and I would like to think that we could kick on.
“The semi-final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle is not until February so the focus again switches to the league but we got to the League Cup final last season and we would love to go one better as that is what you live for. We can win the cup with the team ethic that we have got.”
The cup nights may have been key moments but, in such a tense season, the defining moments are yet to come.