IT HAS been a long wait for Jason Holt to return to action. A little longer than expected: the initial target for the Hearts midfielder after he broke a metatarsal in training was the League Cup semi-final at the start of this month.
And a lot longer than hoped: Holt’s calm creativity has been badly missed by a team who at times have struggled to maintain a foothold in the middle of the park.
The first league game Holt missed was Hearts’ 2-2 draw at home to Ross County in November, which took place on the same afternoon that Niall McGinn scored for Aberdeen in his team’s 3-1 defeat by Celtic.
Since that McGinn goal, no other player in the league has scored against Celtic, whose goalkeeper Fraser Forster is now just 31 minutes away from beating the all-time Scottish league record for not conceding.
Forster is beatable, as Holt knows personally, having scored a second-half equaliser in the teams’ first meeting of the season in mid-September before Celtic pulled away to win 3-1.
And Celtic are beatable, too, as Aberdeen proved by winning in the Scottish Cup a fortnight ago. But Neil Lennon’s team have yet to lose in the league, and on their last visit to Tynecastle, in the fourth round of the cup, they scored seven without reply.
Holt’s inability to influence proceedings made that game all the more frustrating for him. “It was hard to watch, and I think that’s a game for the boys to forget,” he said. “Watching from the sides it is frustrating, because you just want to be out there helping the boys.
“It was a poor game for us, but at the same time I also think that Celtic played exceptionally well. This time we need to match them in all areas. You can’t allow them time on the ball, because they have the quality players to get the goals if you give them space. Three weeks later when we played them again in the league we gave a better account of ourselves at Celtic Park,” he said, referring to Hearts’ 2-0 loss on the weekend before Christmas.
Looking back to that first meeting of the sides this season, Holt said: “In that game I think we did reasonably well, even though we got beaten. My goal was just a shot from the edge of the box and thankfully it went in, but if we can go out there and match them in all areas then hopefully we can get something out of the game.”
The chance for Forster to set a new record will obviously be the focus of a lot of interest today, but Holt is sure he and his team-mates will not be distracted by it. “Stopping Celtic’s records wouldn’t mean anything to us. It’s great for Fraser Forster, but we’re only interested in ourselves and getting something out of the game. Forster is a top goalkeeper and the record he is building speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone could argue about his qualities.”
Few would argue about Holt’s qualities either. The only real debate is whether, after so long out, he is ready to start. He played a full game for Hearts’ under-20s in midweek, so it could be a tough call for manager Gary Locke to make.
“I was surprisingly okay after Wednesday and it’s just good to get my first 90 minutes under my belt,” Holt added. “That was my first full game in three months, so it’s good to be back.
“It’s been frustrating most of the time. I think when you’re injured that’s always the case and there are times when you think ‘Am I ever going to get back?’ But that’s nearly two weeks’ training under my belt and one full game, so things are going well again.
“It was especially frustrating because I was out at a time when the manager desperately needed bodies and I felt a bit helpless. There’s not much you can do but concentrate on your recovery and getting yourself ready again to get back on the park. Now I’m back and feel strong, I’m just happy to be back in about things.”