WHEN you suffer a crushing defeat, you ideally do not want to play the same opponents again for some time. And when you do meet them, you want to be in a stronger position: with a full squad to select from, and a few encouraging wins to bolster morale.
So there is nothing ideal from Hearts’ point of view about their visit to Celtic Park tomorrow. Just three weeks on from their 7-0 home defeat in the Scottish Cup, the Tynecastle side have more injury worries than ever, and have lost their subsequent matches.
Jason Holt and Ryan Stevenson are still out, reserve goalkeeper Mark Ridgers is recovering from injury, and now Gary Oliver has also been sidelined. There are doubts over Jamie Walker and Scott Robinson, while captain Danny Wilson will play despite suffering from shin splints.
It would therefore be understandable if the Hearts squad felt a degree of reluctance as they travel west tomorrow. If there is ever a good time to face Celtic, it is surely not now for the team who sit bottom of the league, still on a minus points total four months into the season.
But assistant manager Billy Brown is sure they will be all right. He is aware that if Celtic reach the level they played at earlier this month, another heavy defeat could be on the cards for his team. By the same token, though, he can point to other results at Parkhead this season as proof that there is nothing inevitable about losing there.
“I think they’ll be okay,” he said yesterday. “I’ve been to Parkhead with really top Hearts teams and been gubbed through there. But nobody is feart here.
“If you watch training or go in the dressing-room these players are not scared of this game. I’m certainly not scared about Saturday. It’s just another challenge.
“Celtic have got the best players and they are the best team and they win the league. It’s a strange thing that, eh?
“On their day Celtic are untouchable in this country. We’ve just got to hope it’s not their day again on Saturday. We hope we can step up to the plate, and I’m confident we can do that.
“We know if Celtic play really well then anything could happen –let’s be quite honest about that – but they have had poor results. Morton beat them there in the League Cup and they only beat Hibs 1-0 there last week – and we’ve beaten Hibs twice this season. So we don’t go there with any fear or trepidation.
“Getting beat 7-0 isn’t nice for any person, any group or any club. But on the day Celtic were absolutely outstanding. We couldn’t get near them.
“That can happen to anyone – as it happened to Celtic when they went to Barcelona,” Brown continued, referring to the champions’ 6-1 defeat last week in the Champions’ League.
“They would have done that to any team and I watched their next game against Motherwell – they could have won that game by more than they beat us.
“They were different class and it was not a good day; not something you look back on with fond memories. But it’s gone now.
“Obviously going to Parkhead on Saturday is a big game for us, in view of the last match. The last result ensures the game will be in the public eye and we will go there as positive as we can. The situation, injury-wise, is getting pretty critical, but we have had no luck this season and hopefully we get some on Saturday.
“No-one has given us any gifts or any benefits this season and we don’t want any. We’re getting on with what we’re doing, and doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”
Brown and manager Gary Locke will not send out too adventurous a formation to start the game, but they appear ready to attempt something more than mere damage limitation. Three weeks ago, after leaking five goals in the first half, they brought on Brad McKay for the second 45, playing him in the back four and moving Dylan McGowan up to a position just in front of the defence. A similar narrow 4-1-4-1 formation, with a midfield cluster designed to slow down Celtic’s build-up, looks like the way to go from the start this time.
Certainly, when asked if the plan was to go and park the bus, Brown offered a firm denial. “No, we’re not doing that at all,” he said. “We prepare for every game, we try to be positive in every game, and we’ll try to do that on Saturday.
“The team has prepared as well as they can through the week and if you look at our recent games, we have been in most of them, Saturday included, and the previous Saturday when we were on the end of a really poor decision at 1-1. At 1-1 at Tannadice,” – where Hearts eventually lost 4-1 – “Sean Dillon tripped Callum Paterson up and how the referee never saw it I will never know. There’s not been a lot in most of our games this season. At times a lack of experience and concentration has cost us a goal. But we have to be positive on Saturday.”