WHERE do Hearts go from here? There is an obvious answer to that: the Championship.
With a full set of fixtures played, they are back where they started, 15 points behind second-bottom St Mirren. In August, after a run of seven points from three games, they would have been mid-table but for that points penalty, imposed for going into administration. Now, they would be ahead of the Paisley side only on goal difference.
Given their recent results and the fact they lost 2-0 to St Mirren three weeks ago, it seems clear that Hearts are at present the weakest team in the division. With no reinforcements possible until February because of the registration ban that accompanied the points deduction, the prospects are not good.
Individually, the players available to Gary Locke have ample ability. As a team, their inexperience suggests that, while capable of a handful of wins over the course of the season, they will not be strong enough to put together the kind of run now needed to get them out of trouble.
There comes a point in a season when a club that is badly detached at the bottom accepts its fate and begins to plan for the next campaign in a lower league. A new division brings new challenges, for which you have to prepare yourself as thoroughly as your means will allow. That point has not come yet for Hearts; not with so many matches still to play. But there is at least now a growing understanding among the club’s support that the severe problems caused by the collapse of Vladimir Romanov’s business empire cannot be rectified overnight. That, whatever division the team find themselves in next year, the club is in the process of a long and painful recovery.
With careful planning and the backing of several thousand supporters, that recovery can be completed successfully by the Foundation of Hearts. If their takeover goes through, the club itself should be secure.
But the immediate concern on the field of play is for the fledgling careers of much of the team. Locke has limited scope for resting those players who need a break, and that scope has been further restricted by the injury that forced Ryan Stevenson off in the first half on Saturday. Having begun the game on his own, Stevenson had the first scoring chance with a shot on the turn, then suffered the injury – a recurrence of the knee damage which ruled him out for almost two months earlier in the season – after 20 minutes. His replacement, Callum Paterson, was himself carrying a knock picked up in training; while as willing as ever, he did not look up to full speed.
Kilmarnock then suffered an injury blow of their own after Darren Barr was stretchered off following a head knock, but by that time the home team had taken control of the game. Kris Boyd gathered a through ball, checked inside Danny Wilson as the Hearts captain slipped on the wet surface, then calmly advanced on Jamie MacDonald before shooting home from ten yards.
Barry Nicholson had an inviting chance to put his team two up just before half-time, but he headed wide at the back post from a Michael Gardyne cross from the right. At the other end, a goalmouth muddle in stoppage time almost cost Kilmarnock, but Wilson was unable to make contact from close range.
Hearts brought on Dale Carrick in place of Callum Tapping for the second half, switching to 4-4-2, and had their best spell of the match in the ten minutes or so immediately after the interval. Any prospect of a comeback, however, was dashed when Boyd latched on to another through ball, set himself up with an excellent first touch, then chipped in.
Kilmarnock continued to play some entertaining football in difficult conditions, but to an extent they were made to look good by their opponents. Defensive failings have been Hearts’ most damaging defect, but their lack of a goal threat is almost as glaring. When their midfield is not functioning smoothly either, there can be only one outcome to a match.
Locke’s team can and will play better than this: they may even do so in the League Cup on Wednesday, in an Edinburgh derby that promises to be a welcome relief from the pressures of league business. But they are lacking direction at the moment, and need to get back to doing the simple things well. When they do, it will provide some encouragement for a support who want to know that if their team does go down, they are at least embarking on a journey which in the end will take them on an upward trajectory.