NESTLING behind sandstone tenements about two miles from the central business district, in an area called home by families and students alike, Firhill is in many respects Glasgow’s answer to Tynecastle.
As teams, too, Hearts and Partick Thistle currently have a lot in common.
Conrad Balatoni could have been playing for Hearts tonight, but Jim Jefferies “didn’t fancy” him as a player and he was destined to be thrown in at the deep end of Scottish football with a different band of colts.
While Gary Locke’s players are having to grow up fast and keep a great club’s reputation intact, Thistle’s are motivated by a burning desire to make the bigger institutions realise what they are missing out on.
“A lot of the Thistle boys have been deemed not good enough by SPL teams so they want to go out and prove themselves,” said Balatoni, 22, yesterday.
“Getting rejected makes you want to show people they were wrong, whatever the job is. Most of the boys have done that. Some maybe just needed a change of scenario and a manager that believes in them, like Jackie McNamara did.
“I feel comfortable playing at this level, even though it’s a big step up. Although I think you need a good 10 games to really get used to it, as you will have blips. I was never in any doubt that I was good enough for this level and it’s been a good couple of weeks. I knew it was going to be hard after leaving Hearts to stay full time but I was lucky enough to get that.”
New Douglas Park used to be the best rehabilitation home for players with broken wings. But Partick appear to be the new Hamilton – Balatoni is not alone in bobbing up here after being raised in more rarefied waters. Firhill manager Alan Archibald has a whole shoal of young snappers who want to prove to previous, mainly top-flight, employers that they would have been worth persevering with.
“They’ve got a hunger to go and show how good they are. The likes of Conrad, Steven O’Donnell and others have been rejected by bigger clubs at some point in their careers,” said Archibald.
“They’re probably now playing against the lads they played against at youth level. Now they’ve got a shop window to show how good they are. If it still annoys them, then show their previous clubs that they made a mistake. If that’s what gets the best out of them then good.”
The last champions of the old First Division, Thistle were fancied by many to be the team on Hearts’ dartboard as the Gorgie side started this season with a cumbersome 15-point handicap. At this early juncture, the Glaswegians have enjoyed proving people wrong with a draw against Dundee United under Friday night lights, then a very satisfying road trip to Dingwall where they beat Ross County 3-1.
Archibald acknowledges that he is still aided in his work by the momentum of last season’s rise. The winter, no doubt, will be tougher than this but tonight, Hearts will be up against a buoyant unit – and one that sits 16 points ahead of them, despite Sunday’s win over Hibs.
“When I won the league with Thistle we came up and everyone was still buzzing,” said the manager. “Most of the boys are still there, it’s the same squad, and they’re used to winning. They’ve got a winning mentality.
“If you look at the play-offs often it’s the team that sneaks in with a late run of wins that ends up coming up as they’ve got that momentum. Here everybody knows each other. We’ve kept most of the squad intact and ten of the players who started last week were here last season.”
Thistle, having spent so much of their existence in the lower echelons, are never deemed to be a fashionable arrival when they bounce back to the top flight. They have never come bounding up, all guns blazing, with the aid of a sugar daddy promising to make them a force. Archibald’s mission is to keep the club in the top flight as long as possible, but he is trying not to mention the R word.
“We’ve not looked at [the Hearts game] like that but I know other people have – an early relegation battle. But we’ve not spoken about it in those terms. We just want to put on a good performance and keep our good home record intact,” he insisted.
“I went to the derby last week and there wasn’t a lot of quality in the game but Hearts showed they have a lot of similarities to ourselves. There’s unity there and a good team spirit.
“I think we’re going to be in for a right battle. They’re playing for Gary Locke and you can see that in the start they’ve had to the season.”