IF HEARTS lose to Motherwell today, it will be the first time in nearly a century that they have suffered four defeats in a row by the Fir Park side.
It is a landmark they will be desperate to avoid this afternoon, not so much for its own sake, but because they are in dire need of some points if they are to put the slightest bit of pressure on the teams above them.
If things remain as they are, with Gary Locke’s side 18 points behind second-bottom St Mirren, they will be relegated before the split. Realistically, they are aware that they are all but down already, but have reached a tacit agreement that they will go into every game as if survival in the Premiership were still in the balance.
“We haven’t really spoken about relegation, but it’s mathematically possible for us to stay up, and until it’s not we’ll just keep going game by game,” midfielder Billy King said. “We just need to keep playing the way we’re playing and the results will hopefully come. We need to get a few wins on the board. Just take it game by game.
“I think we’ve made vast improvements since the start of the season. It’s just down to experience – I think that’s the main thing. Playing at this level regularly, you see the improvements already with our recent form and results. We’ve done so much better than at the start of the season.”
The problem for Hearts is that the improvement of which King spoke has not been translated into points often enough. Last week against Celtic, for example, they played well, particularly during a spell late in the second half when they pressed hard for an equaliser. But a late goal by Teemu Pukki sealed a 2-0 win for the champions, leaving Locke’s squad with little more than the consolatory thought that if they play that well in the coming weeks, they will take points from most other teams in the division.
“The performance was very good and we were unlucky not to get the draw in the end,” King continued. “We just need to concentrate on winning the games that are more winnable than against Celtic. We almost got a draw against Celtic and they’re obviously the best team in the league by a mile. If we play like that against other teams we’ve got a very good chance of winning.”
Some of the 19-year-old’s team-mates have played regularly this season – too regularly, according to their manager, who would dearly like to have a deeper squad so he could rest his younger players from time to time.
But King himself has had far more first-team appearances off the bench than starts, and has been forced to remain patient while colleagues such as Sam Nicholson have been given a game more regularly.
“It is frustrating, but I just need to keep playing well for the 20s and keep trying to do well when I come on for the first team,” King added. “And hopefully I’ll get a few more starts before the end of the season. It’s down to training well, then it’s up to the manager.
“I think Sam has deserved his chance. He’s done brilliant for the 20s and when he’s come on for the first team he’s done brilliant there too. He obviously deserves his starts, and he’s done really well when he’s played, so I can’t complain about that.”
While Hearts played reasonably well in defeat last weekend, Motherwell both lost and played poorly, particularly in defence. The 3-0 defeat by St Johnstone was the third game in a row in which they had lost three goals, and while the first game in that run was an entertaining 4-3 win over Partick Thistle, the second was a 3-1 loss to Dundee United.
It comes as no surprise, then, that manager Stuart McCall has decreed that the priority today for his side is to cut out the defensive blunders. “We have certainly got to defend better than the last two games,” he said.
“Out of the six goals, you would say five, and possibly all six, have come from defensive frailty from ourselves. So we have to cut that out.
“Obviously we have had a dip in form, but when you give goals away, that can affect the side. We need lads to get back to the form they were showing two or three weeks ago, when a lot of them were on top of their game.”
Estonian striker Henri Anier is out with a shin injury, and left-back Steven Hammell is also sidelined with a strained hamstring. Hammell’s fellow-full-backs Fraser Kerr and Simon Ramsden are also on the injury list, while others who should be rested, according to McCall, will play.
“There are a couple of players who would probably benefit from being pulled out the side because they are carrying little niggles and strains,” he added.
“It has probably affected their form, but it is what it is. We only had seven training on Thursday.”