HEARTS are approaching the most critical month of their season as pressure intensifies ahead of the Scottish Communities League Cup final. Five league games precede the Hampden Park showpiece with St Mirren on March 17. Three are at home, and building momentum is crucial with the final in mind.
It is a period which will define the club’s 2012/13 campaign and, potentially, could persuade John McGlynn’s detractors that he is a worthy Hearts manager. The club are languishing in tenth position in the Scottish Premier League and need points to climb into the top six before April’s split. A solid sequence of results against Inverness, Motherwell and St Johnstone at Tynecastle, plus St Mirren in Paisley, would set Hearts up for the derby with Hibs seven days before the cup final. More than just McGlynn will feel the tension heightening over the coming weeks.
Colin Cameron remembers the experience well, having played in the 1996 League Cup Final and the 1998 Scottish Cup Final for Hearts. He knows the strain players are put under when major finals are looming, but stressed that it should only be welcomed. What his former club need to avoid is arriving at Hampden on the back of indifferent league results and struggling to lift morale for the biggest game of their season.
“What the next few weeks should do is spur the players on,” he told the Evening News. “I’m sure John will be telling them all they are playing for a place in the cup final. Nobody will want to miss out on it. I would like to think these league games will be viewed as vital, also because of Hearts’ position in the table at the moment. Two or three wins propels them right up the table and possibly within touching distance of second place. That’s how tight the league is. If their league form is good, then they will go into the final with a lot of confidence. There are massive incentives for all the players.
“Go into any game on the back of disappointing results and performances and it’s hard to get yourself up for that one match, even though it is a final. If Hearts can pick up victories and start moving in the right direction in the league, it just brings more confidence to the players. They might end up trying things they wouldn’t otherwise try because they are confident. Then they can go into the final a bit more relaxed because their league results will have picked up and they’ll be in a decent position in the table.
“If they go through these games and don’t pick up any wins, they could find themselves second bottom of the table quite easily. Go into the final second bottom of the league and your whole perspective on that final changes.”
With the Tynecastle first-team squad now dominated by teenagers and youth academy graduates, the next few weeks will be alien territory for all but a select few. Most of those who sampled the unique euphoria of beating Hibs at Hampden last May have gone due to financial cutbacks. Jamie MacDonald, Andy Webster, Darren Barr, Scott Robinson and Mehdi Taouil are the only remnants from last year’s success who could realistically start another final in maroon.
Cameron believes, however, that McGlynn is the ideal man to maintain the youngsters’ focus in the build-up to the final. “First and foremost he’s a good man. That gets you the respect of your players,” explained the Cowdenbeath manager. “John will enjoy it. It’s a new experience for him but he’ll use his own experience to keep the younger boys focused. He won’t want them looking too far ahead to the final. He’ll explain what it means to the club, and most of the players will understand that anyway. Also, he’ll tell them what it could mean to them. It’s a chance to make a name for themselves early on in their careers.
“Nothing really fazes John, he’s always exactly the same, very level-headed. That’s important for younger players and Hearts have plenty of them. Because of circumstances, he’s having to play a lot more younger players than maybe he would like. There is a good youth system at Hearts and players are getting opportunities that maybe wouldn’t have before and they’re thriving on it.
“When you have so many young players in a team, they aren’t going to gel straight away. They’re going to have ups and downs, that’s what you get with young players. League form is going to fluctuate – there will be a couple of good results and then a couple not so good. One of the best things about young players is they don’t tend to have any fear. They just go out and play. Then they want the next game to come and the next game. They want to improve and show people they can play at a high level.
“Inconsistencies cause problems and you will see varying form. It will be hard for the kids to get into a situation where they’re putting six or seven results together. However, John will want to go through this period leading up to the cup final unbeaten. Three of their five games before the final are at home, so there’s no doubt they can do it. John will see it as a challenge, not only because Hearts are heading for a cup final, but because he doesn’t want to be in that position in the league. He wants to get them out of that position. It won’t be for the want of trying or hard work. That’s something John has shown throughout his coaching career. This period won’t define him but it will certainly shape how things go after the final.”