IF EVER there was a footballing equivalent of going down swinging, Hearts produced it yesterday.
Scorers: Partick - Doolan 5; McMillan 88; Hearts - Carrick 44; King 50; Stevenson 61, 68
Relegation for the first time since 1981 was visited upon them – as it was always going to be – but that it was a consequence of St Mirren’s closing minutes comeback against Motherwell, rather than any shortcomings on their part at Firhill, mattered.
It mattered to the travelling supporters, who serenaded their team and the club, even more vocally when the late news filtered through from Paisley. And it mattered to their manager Gary Locke, who spoke of his “pride” in a sparkling
four-score victory that demonstrated the potential of the young side he notably stressed had improved under his tutelage this season.
Of course, in the key struggle that Hearts are facing, nothing that happened on the pitch yesterday or in any other game since the club plunged into administration last June ultimately really matters. The need for Lithuanian creditors to accept the proposals for a CVA at a meeting tomorrow is what matters as Hearts find themselves at a crossroads wherein one way lies a measure of financial stability, while the other the other path leads to the oblivion of liquidation.
Locke, who accepted demotion with magnanimity, has long known that. The Hearts manager, has never struggled to grasp the situation his club have become mired in.
“It was a big game for us today but our biggest challenge of the whole season will be Monday and we just hope and pray everything goes well,” he said.
“The biggest decision for the football club is going to come down to Monday. Once we get that, the new owner can come in and make decisions and we can hopefully move forward as a football club, but it all hinges on what happens in Lithuania on Monday.
“We have done our bit today on the pitch, but our biggest battle is going to be getting the club out of administration and hopefully everything will go to plan on Monday. It will be a long day. I am not looking forward to it but I am a positive person and I hope we get a positive outcome. If we do, I will certainly be a happy man come Monday night.”
If it doesn’t sound perverse, he could be a happy man last night. After being given the runaround for 20 minutes by Thistle – who earned a fifth-minute lead when Kris Doolan burst through and hammered high past Jamie MacDonald – Hearts came to life in exhilarating fashion.
No-one more so than Billy King, who produced a half-hour purple patch that was dazzling. Approaching half-time, with exquisite control and balance, he made space where none existed on the right byline to chip over for Dale Carrick to head in. Then, six minutes into the restart, he smeared an effort high into the net that even drew gasps and grudging admiration from the home supporters.
It was then his sweet delivery from a corner kick that allowed Ryan Stevenson to head his team into a 3-1 lead just after the hour. The wonder was that Stevenson didn’t require King’s assistance to bag a fourth for the visitors, the forward wheeling round on the edge of the box before steering the ball into the net.
Hearts have now taken 15 points from their past 11 games – they only garnered 13 points from their first 22 matches. Since the turn of the year, they have only lost three games by more than a goal. So much for the health and safety issues supposedly being comprised by flogging a young squad for a whole season. If this campaign had been a season-and-a-half, Hearts probably would have been able to excavate themselves from the 15-point hole dug for them by gross financial mismanagement.
“If the young lads knew [at the start] what they know now, we would have given ourselves a really good chance,” said Locke. “We had to throw them in at the deep end and we have made mistakes over the course of the season, myself included, but we have learnt from them and every one of us is better for it.
“We have had a lot to deal with this year, not being able to sign players and a 15-point deduction, but today showed that if we didn’t have a 15-point deduction we would be in the mix with a really young side.”
Locke was asked about how much he wanted to be around to further develop the players he has certainly helped develop inside ten months. Prospective new owner Ann Budge is said to want to replace the novice manager with a more experienced man, but Locke can now claimed to be such an individual.
“[My own future] is another decision that’s out of my hands. Everybody knows what the football club means to me,” he said. “The players I have worked with this year
have certainly improved and the experienced players have handled themselves brilliantly. Earlier in the season we made errors which we were punished for but you can see now the young players aren’t making as many.”
Opposite number Alan Archibald, whose side netted a late consolation through Jordan McMillan, could only despair that his side once more had chances to win a game and squandered them. “We had two at 1-0 and I’ve always said at this level you need to take those sort of opportunities,” he said. “The game-plan was working but we took our foot off the gas and let Hearts in it.”
Now Partick are in it up to their necks in terms of the relegation play-off place they now occupy. “We are back in that spot, but have been there before and got out of it and we need to get out of it again.” Tomorrow Hearts will learn whether they have suffered enough or are about to start suffering a whole heap more.