PARTICK Thistle have had an excellent start to the season and will be Hearts’ toughest challenge so far, according to Gary Locke.
Hearts lost their opening league match at St Johnstone then won Sunday’s Edinburgh derby, but Locke sees this evening’s game at Firhill as particularly difficult because of the positive spirit the Glasgow side have shown in their own early games back in the top flight.
“Partick Thistle have been magnificent,” the Hearts manager said. “I watched them against Dundee United, and John [Murray, Hearts director of football] was at the Ross County game, and they are flying.
“They have good players and are performing really well, they are really positive in everything they do, they like to attack and they play some terrific stuff. It will be our most difficult game of the season so far. Of the two teams we have played, St Johnstone played well and Hibs was a battle. But the way Partick Thistle move the ball is really impressive and they are playing with a lot of confidence.”
Locke was relieved to see his Scotland under-21 players return physically unscathed from their 6-0 mauling by their English counterparts but accepted their morale had taken a hit. Defender Brad McKay picked up a knock, but was able to run it off.
“They all came back fit, fortunately, because that was my worry all week,” Locke continued.
“We had a few away and, if any of them had reported back with injuries then it was going to be a struggle for us. But, touch wood, I’ve spoken to the physio and they are all looking fit and well.
“It’s the right end of the season to be playing so many games, but it is still a big ask. They are only young lads and they are going to be playing three games in six days. I’m just hoping they can get through Friday with a positive result – then they can have a well-earned weekend off, because one or two of them will need it.
“I am slightly worried, yes,” he added when asked about their morale. “Obviously they go into that game high in confidence, then I think everybody who watched the game saw it was a disastrous result for us. I’m hoping they’re okay. I’ve not spoken to them in depth about it, but I am hoping it has not dented their confidence too much.
“It was one of those nights where nothing went for us. But it was a friendly and, if you are going to put in a performance like that, then it is better you do it in a friendly, rather than a qualifier. Billy [Stark, Scotland under-21 manager] had to make a lot of changes, too, but we redeemed ourselves in the senior game.”
Locke has already had to contend with the loss from his squad of Ryan Stevenson, who was injured during the win over Hibs and will be out for two to three months. “We have a threadbare squad and any injuries are going to hurt us,” he added. “Certainly, Ryan having an injury now, with an eight or 12-week layoff, is a huge blow. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves and we just have to get on with it. If we get any more injuries then we will be reliant on 16-year-olds, but moaning about it won’t get us anywhere.”
Full-back Kevin McHattie, who played alongside McKay in the under-21s international, said the buoyant mood of the Hearts squad was key to lifting his mood when he returned from the Sheffield game. “The high of Sunday was magnificent and the fans were incredible, but obviously we came down to earth on Tuesday and it wasn’t our night,” McHattie explained. “To be fair, England were excellent.
“Coming into training the boys are still buzzing, so hopefully we can keep building with a result against Thistle. After nights like that you have to take in what you have done wrong; you have to learn. That’s part of the game and you have to focus on the next game. You learn from your mistakes and the key thing is making sure you don’t do them again.
“The players [England] have are physically and technically brilliant, and pace-wise they’re unbelievable. I had never played against anything like that before, but we’ll pick ourselves up. We’re all hurting just now, of course. But the boys will come together and get through it. It’s a massive help to have so many involved to bounce back together – we had six away.”
One thing that will help McHattie is the memory of that derby win, which set Hearts off on the way to their first target of the season, the zero points mark.
“It was a massive result for the club and the fans,” McHattie added. “Going from minus 15 to minus 12 was important and we’ll aim to keep picking up three points and climbing the table.”