GARY Locke is sure that Celtic will not be as vulnerable at Tynecastle on Sunday as they were against AC Milan three days ago, but, by the same token, he is confident that all the pressure will be on the Scottish Cup holders and that his own young Hearts side can play without fear.
Celtic have already won in Gorgie this season, having defeated Hearts 3-1 in the league in September, when Teemu Pukki came off the bench to score on his debut. But the fact that their one domestic defeat so far has been in a knockout game – a League Cup loss at home to Morton – leads Locke to believe that they could be vulnerable to an upset in the fourth-round tie.
“The pressure is all on Celtic – this is a game that everybody fully expects them to win,” the Hearts manager said yesterday. “Our younger players have to enjoy the occasion and savour the full-house atmosphere at Tynecastle and express themselves. The match is live on TV and they can go and make a name for themselves.
“Celtic are strong favourites. We acquitted ourselves well against them earlier this season and we’ll have to do the same again. We don’t fear anybody. We have a young side and we have good players at this club, and, if they express themselves like I know they can, then they can get a result.
“There is a weight lifted from us and we can switch off a wee bit because it’s not a league game. It will be all about who turns up on the day and hopefully that will be Hearts.
“We’ve done well against the bigger clubs in the league and it’s the teams round about us that we’ve struggled against this season. We know how difficult it’s going to be, but as long as we’re well-prepared and up for the challenge then I fancy Hearts to cause an upset.”
Celtic had been expected to be up for the challenge on Tuesday night against Milan, when they knew they needed a win to have a chance of remaining in the Champions League. As it was, they lost, and were also denied the consolation prize of a Europa League place because Ajax beat Barcelona.
Locke is realistic enough to know that his team do not have the firepower to exploit any of Celtic’s shortcomings in the same way and, in any case, he is convinced that they will have worked hard in training to ensure there is no recurrence of those failings. “I’ve never seen Celtic lose goals like that at set plays before,” he added. “I think it’s something that Neil Lennon and the team work very hard on.
“They’ll be working hard on that aspect of their game and we won’t find it as easy as Milan did. I was at that game and I didn’t see them losing by three goals. Virgil van Dijk could have turned the game if he had scored and the atmosphere was tremendous. When an Old Firm team are coming to you on the back of a defeat, they’re always more dangerous.
“It’s a game that we’re looking forward to and we’re on a decent run ourselves. Everybody’s high on confidence and, if we can eradicate errors at the back, then we can get the right result.”
Those errors at the back were again in evidence last week, when Hearts twice came from behind to claim a 2-2 draw at home to Ross County but, on the plus side, they have posed more of a danger up front in recent weeks, with Callum Paterson and Ryan Stevenson both among the goals.
“We’ve made errors defensively and conceded preventable goals, but we are starting to score goals now,” Locke said. “There are aspects to our play that we can do better.
“Callum has scored three goals in his last three games – one for the [Scotland] under-21s – but that has given him huge confidence and Ryan has also chipped in with a couple of goals. Hearts started the season without a recognised striker, so it’s great that those two players are starting to contribute goals to the cause. I’m glad the two of them are doing well in an attacking sense and it seems to have worked for us and paid off in the past few weeks.”
Those past few weeks have been particularly tense for the senior staff at Tynecastle, as the date approached for the meetings between administrators BDO and the club’s creditors and shareholders, that could lead to the acceptance of a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) that would take Hearts out of administration. Last week’s adjournment of the creditors’ meeting extended the uncertainty and, when he spoke yesterday, Locke did not know if both meetings would go ahead as planned today.
“We’re looking for a favourable outcome at the CVA meeting. I’ve spoken to Bryan [Jackson] and Trevor [Birch] from BDO regularly and they keep us up to date with what is going on. Everybody connected with the football club is praying for the right result off the park. It will be a huge release for everyone if that is the case. I’m a positive person and, hopefully, it all works out for us in the right manner.”