The last time Hearts played at Tynecastle they fell to a dispiriting defeat by Motherwell. It was an especially deflating experience because it included a strong second-half performance by the home team when they did everything but score. Were they ever going to win again?
The sense of gloom was deepened when it was announced only a few days later that assistant manager Billy Brown would be leaving when his short-term contract expired later in the month. It was clearly a decision made against manager Gary Locke’s wishes and he did not even try to conceal his disappointment. This trace of in-fighting only made the sense of disarray seem more profound at a club battling to remain in existence.
While the principal fight remains this bid to exit administration a sudden turnaround in fortunes on the pitch has left everyone feeling a lot more optimistic at the club. The outlook has brightened at just the right time. Tonight’s rearranged league match with St Mirren provides Hearts with the chance to build on Saturday’s 2-1 victory against Ross County in Dingwall – their first in the league since November.
This result also helped keep the momentum going following the previous weekend’s admirable fightback from 3-1 down against St Johnstone to draw 3-3. To add to all this has been the decision by administrators BDO to extend Brown’s stay at the club for another month. The assistant manager had originally gained a short stay of execution after the senior players made a request for him to be kept on until after this Sunday’s League Cup semi-final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Now it has been confirmed that he will remain in place until the end of this month.
Manager Locke yesterday said that the news added to the good vibes currently being felt within the playing squad in what he described as a “huge week” for the club. He has detected the return of the most vital X factor of all at a football club – confidence.
“The players, barring two or three games, have given us absolutely everything all season,” he said. “I think they have shown they are up for the cause and right behind us. I think the biggest thing in the last couple of weeks has been a little bit of confidence coming back.”
“Young players thrive on being confident and when we hit a bad spell their confidence probably took a dip at the same time, but in the last couple of games we have been delighted. On Saturday we were delighted about getting a good result and a performance – now we try to build on that.” Locke has been heartened to hear the news of the further delay in Brown’s departure. “He is an important member of the backroom team and someone I lean on a lot so I’m delighted he will be there,” he said. “It’s massive for the games coming up. Any manager will tell you that their assistant plays a huge part and Billy has certainly done that since coming back to the club. I have nothing but admiration for him.
“At the time, it was a financial decision and it’s not something I want to get involved in – the most important thing is Billy is staying. You would need to speak to Billy about whether it’s been difficult for him. But he never changes, he comes in every day with a smile on his face, and we’re happy that is going to continue.
“Any manager doesn’t want their assistant to agree with everything you say. We don’t have many disagreements, but it is vital you get another opinion and Billy brings that, along with Alan Combe and Robbie Neilson.
“We are a close-knit backroom team and we talk about things all the time. I’m certainly not a manager who would make a decision without consulting anyone else.”
Locke has tried hard to impress the importance of keeping minds on tonight’s league fixture, something that might be easier said than done when so many of the current squad are youngsters whose natural inclination is to look ahead to such exciting occasions as a cup semi-final.
“Maybe some of the younger players’ minds might drift towards the semi-final but, with the situation we are in, it is important we get a bit of momentum,” he stressed. “It’s not something we have had much of this season. There certainly won’t be anyone thinking about the semi-final – we have a big, big game against St Mirren first. On Thursday morning we look towards Sunday.”