IF A HOME defeat by Celtic could never be called a good result for Hearts, Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the champions was at least not a bad one.
The same goes for the Tynecastle club’s previous result, a 2-0 loss in Inverness. Far from being demoralising, both produced further evidence that Gary Locke’s young squad can, under certain conditions, remain competitive.
With those games against the Scottish Premiership’s top two out of the way, the manager and his players can now concentrate on a run of fixtures which are far more likely to shape their season. Hearts have five more matches to play before the first full round of matches is complete, and three are against the strugglers immediately above them: Ross County, St Mirren and Kilmarnock.
Eight more points from those five games – Dundee United and Motherwell are the other opponents they have yet to meet – would take Hearts to their initial target of zero, having begun the season with a 15-point deficit for going into administration. That would keep the team on track to do everything they can to escape relegation, but there are another couple of factors which will play a big role in determining Hearts’ fate.
On the pitch; across the country; and behind the scenes. Those are the three distinct areas where things have to go right for Hearts if they are to extend their 31-year stay in the top flight. They are all inter-related, of course, but let’s look at them separately.
On the pitch, the task is self-explanatory. At this stage, little or no thought will be given to a final points tally for the season. Get to zero and then take stock: that has been the consistent message from day one.
We often talk of false dawns in football, but day one for Hearts this season was if anything a false sunset; a 1-0 defeat at St Johnstone that had some observers predicting a long and unrewarding series of unequal, men-against-boys struggles. Since then, however, the boys have shown they have more than enough ability to thrive at this level.
Questions about burn-out remain to be answered, and as long as Locke is unable to sign new players, Hearts could be done serious damage by a relatively small number of injuries. But when it comes to the talent within the squad, it is clear that the likes of Jason Holt, Brad McKay and Kevin McHattie are good enough for the top flight.
If those three and their team-mates continue to do the job on the pitch, they will have a fighting chance of survival. And of course every head-to-head with opponents in the bottom half of the league constitutes an opportunity to demoralise those opponents; to close the gap by another three points and make them think that they could be caught.
Yet no matter the results on the pitch, Hearts may still also need to benefit from the misfortunes of other clubs across the country. And of those who look likeliest to be dragged into the relegation battle, most have the resources to be able to make a decent attempt at escape.
Ross County, for example, are having a poor run of form, and if they lose at home to Hearts on Saturday the alarm bells in Dingwall could be audible in Gorgie. But they have the money to address any such crisis, by bringing in new players or coaches.
To a lesser extent, St Mirren are in the same situation. Unlike Hearts, they can respond to poor results by shuffling their squad, and to injuries by giving a game to players with some experience.
Whether Kilmarnock will be able to do those things is another question. Dissatisfaction with chairman Michael Johnston is now deep-seated within the support at Rugby Park, and any drop in attendances will have an effect on a financial situation which is not the brightest. Unlike Ross County and St Mirren, Kilmarnock may not be able to trade their way out of trouble – or at least, not to the same extent as those two clubs.
Yet even if Hearts thrive on the pitch while the likes of Kilmarnock toil, they will still need things to go right behind the scenes at Tynecastle. Administrators BDO and preferred bidders the Foundation of Hearts are working well together, but such co-operation is no guarantee that the club’s creditors will agree to a CVA.
The status of Hearts’ parent company, Ubig, has yet to be determined by a Lithuanian court, and until that happens any resolution appears impossible. The Foundation does not expect any movement on that front for a week or two at best, so for the time being, uncertainty remains.
What is certain, however, is the fact that the Foundation is now an indispensable element in Hearts’ survival in the top flight. If the club’s main creditors, Ubig and Ukio Bankas, were to refuse a CVA, it could take months before the future of Tynecastle became clear. But the effect on the support, and on the team’s performances, would be drastic and immediate.
Locke’s team are performing impressively on the pitch, and the principal actors in the Foundation are doing just as good a job behind the scenes. For the time being, however, Hearts are still not the masters of their own fortune.
Danny Lennon not getting name of the game
ACCORDING to the Chris Hoy test, Danny Lennon should have vanished from the physical realm some time ago. It was at the 2008 Olympic Games that the Scottish cyclist was asked “What does Chris Hoy think of Chris Hoy?” His answer: “When Chris Hoy starts referring to Chris Hoy in the third person, that’s when Chris Hoy disappears up his own arse.”
On Saturday, after his St Mirren team lost 1-0 at home to Motherwell, Danny Lennon addressed the post-match press conference thus: “I am very comfortable and once again there is a lot of focus on Danny Lennon and his managerial record and ability over the last few weeks and once again there will be a negative story for you guys.”
But the trouble for Danny Lennon – whose habit of talking about himself by name began some time ago – is that many people associated with St Mirren no longer feel very comfortable with Danny Lennon being in charge at New Love Street. Five games into the season, Danny Lennon’s team have one point. True, they have a game in hand on the teams immediately above them, but that game is against Celtic. If Hearts had not begun the season on minus 15, St Mirren would be bottom by now. If present trends continue, those two clubs will exchange places around the middle of next month.
The League Cup win in March was a great moment for the Paisley club, one of only four major honours in their history. Unless they want the next sentence in that history to read “The following season, we were
relegated”, the board of directors may well have to make a change in the coming weeks.
The current squad is capable of better than its recent results, and rightly or wrongly, that underachievement will be laid at the door of Danny Lennon. That’s not “a negative story”. It’s the way football works.